Remembering Neville Britto: Friend, Mentor, and Hero
by Jen Richrath, Professor, Illinois Central College / with excerpts from Larry McDoniel and from Perry A. Farrell, Detroit Free Press
Why do we do what we do? How can we make a difference? Who will remember? When the papers are piling up and the committee work seems like too much to handle, I often try to remind myself of the important work we do behind all of those day-to-day responsibilities. It’s not about working 9 to 5 and crossing things off lists. It’s the random drop-ins that occur just before leaving the office–a quick student question that turns into an hour-long conversation because the student needs that from you right then. It’s the email response you send right before bed that could have been 2 sentences, but instead you construct 5 paragraphs of instruction in that email because you realize it’s a teaching moment. It’s all the little things we do that make a difference. It’s the fact that we not only use our minds in this profession, we give our hearts.
As we venture into the 2017 TYCA Midwest conference, let’s take a moment to reflect on someone who was all heart. At last year’s conference, we celebrated the accomplishments of Neville Britto. Larry McDoniel, a former member of the TYCA-MW Executive Board and good friend of Neville, had this to say:
50 years ago, in 1966, the first set of NCTE/CCCC sponsored two-year college regional conferences were held, and so TYCA Midwest’s ancestor – the Midwest Regional Conference or MRC – came to be. 20 years ago, in 1996, TYCA (and coincidentally TYCA Midwest) was born…Throughout these 50 years, a handful of our colleagues have stepped up and said what needed to be said to ensure that our students’, our teachers’, and our colleges’ concerns were acknowledged locally and nationally. They did the work required, never expecting to be recognized or even thanked. Any number of people gathered here today know first-hand what this is like. It is for these tireless workers who rarely get the recognition they deserve that TYCA Midwest’s Unsung Hero Award was created.
The 2016 recipient of the Unsung Hero Award, Neville Britto, served both the MRC and TYCA Midwest in a number of capacities; he has worn a hat rack’s worth of hats. Indeed, were it not for the work of Neville Britto and a few like him, the MRC would have dissolved many snowy winters ago and TYCA/Midwest would never have been created.
In the summer of 2016, Neville announced on his Facebook page that he was excited to begin his 53rd year of teaching. He was returning to the classroom and his Delta College students despite an exhausting summer, during which his wife had been hospitalized for months and then weeks before the fall semester had died. Throughout this ordeal, he rarely left her side, only doing so when a family member or close friend took his place. Of course, if you know anything about my friend Neville, you know that he and his wife of 42 years, Leatha, were rarely separated. And sadly, two days into the semester, Neville joined his “darling Leatha.”
I attended both their funerals, barely a month apart. Both were well-known in the Saginaw community; apparently, neither of them knew how to say no to requests for help. I sat near the back of their parish church, among their “rainbow” parish, a diverse Catholic community, where an African-American gospel choir took turns with a Tex-Mex chorus. I listened as people around me talked about Leatha, then a few weeks later, about Neville. For both, the consensus was, “They touched people’s hearts!”
This man clearly made a difference in many people’s lives.
In addition to conferring this award upon Mr. Britto in 2016, the TYCA Executive Board has decided to henceforth change the award from the “Unsung Hero” to the “Neville Britto Unsung Hero Award.” I have shared this news with his family. They were very pleased but surprised as well. It seems that “Pops” Britto was an unsung hero in his “other” family as well as to all of us in the TYCA community.
Larry’s acceptance speech at the 2016 conference brought tears to the eyes of many. Neville’s leadership for TYCA-MW was immeasurable, and we will be forever thankful for his influence on our lives. Shortly after Neville’s death, a student of his (Perry A. Farrell) wrote an article about Neville for the Detroit Free Press. In it, he said:
“My mentor died last week.
I know it was from a broken heart.
Neville Britto changed my life. He was my English teacher, homeroom teacher and mentor while I was at Sacred Heart Junior High in Saginaw. My interest in writing was spurred by him.”
Mr. Farrell went on to say:
“Mr. Britto was from Bangalore, India. He studied English and Economics at St. Francis de Sales. He described himself as laid back and cheerful. He was all that and more.
Sacred Heart closed and he continued teaching English at Delta College and was a pillar of the community. He helped so many, counseled so many, gave often of himself to so many. He was a man among men.
I always gave him credit for what little success I’ve had in journalism. He said it was what was inside me. No, it was how he carried himself and what he demanded of me that kept me on the straight and narrow. He made me want to be a better person.”
At the end of his tribute, Mr. Farrell included a heartfelt farewell:
“Rest in Peace Mr. Britto; you deserve it. Just know you made a world of difference in a lot of people’s lives.
Neville wasn’t in this profession for the accolades. He was simply the kind of man who cared enough to give it his all. As we venture into the 2017 conference, take a moment to look around. Look at all the people who choose to teach…who choose to give it everything they have…who want to be someone who makes a difference. If you don’t find inspiration in that, where will you find it? In honor of Neville Britto, I see the hero in all of you, and I will be energized and inspired just by your presence. Thanks for putting your heart into what we do.
Just lovely. Neville is certainly missed, and he is an inspiration to us all. Let us keep his memory in our hearts as we gather for TYCA Midwest Oct. 2017 where we will inspire and reinvigorate each other for another year.
A wonderful tribute to a wonderful man. In the short time I knew him, Neville made a lasting impression on me. I remember the first session I ever attended at TYCA was his; I cannot remember what it was about, but I do remember feeling that he was the kind of instructor, guide, professor I wanted to be like in my career. Thank you for this tribute.