Taconic teacher Kevin Harrington remembered as 'gentle giant' who cared deeply for others
PITTSFIELD — Taconic High School senior Addison Lyon said she walks by Kevin Harrington's second-floor classroom expecting to hear a familiar hello.
But since Wednesday, the greeting hasn't come.
"He just brought so much joy to that school," she said. "And it's just been quiet."
The beloved special education teacher died Wednesday while doing what most fulfilled him: teaching at Taconic High School, from which he graduated in 2000. He was 38. A public celebration of life will be held Saturday at the Pittsfield Elks Lodge.
In the days following his death from cardiac arrest, many took to social media to say they wouldn't have graduated without him. Or made college sports teams. Smaller deeds also drew praise, like the way he cared for the lawn of a neighbor who'd fallen ill.
He lived to help people, say those close to him, and he brought out their best.
"I think he had too big of a heart, clearly," said his brother, Joe Harrington. "He couldn't do it all."
Born Oct. 28, 1981, Harrington worked at the high school for nearly 15 years, including a five-year stint as assistant football coach and five years as assistant softball coach. From 2010 to 2017, he served as the softball team's head coach.
As a student, he was captain of the school's football and wrestling teams, and was the first wrestler in Taconic history to reach 100 career wins, according to the school's athletic department.
Kevin's wife, Kellie Harrington, said her husband more than once turned down offers for school administrative positions. He was so focused on working directly with kids who needed him most, she said, that it seemed to him a step in the wrong direction.
She describes him as generous, kind and dedicated.
"He wore his heart on his sleeve," she said. "Just knowing him made you a better person."
Harrington was a regular at Berkshire Nautilus gym, loved to cook, and was a proud owner of a 1997 Mustang Cobra. He was a vehement Patriots fan.
He had his hobbies, but longtime friend Joe Pravia said Taconic "was his love."
During the school day, Lyon, who once had Kevin has a coach, said she and her friends would go to the resource room to complain or just to chat.
"He always had time to listen," she said. "He always made everyone feel like they mattered, and what they had to say mattered."
She saw him as a mentor, and while he died young, she said to her it seems "his life was so complete."
"I don't think there's many people that can say they've touched as many lives as he has," she said.
Young people who had him as a coach say that when they were having a rough game, he'd pull them aside, tell them to take a deep breath and say "I believe in you."
"Words would come out of his mouth and put confidence into my body," Lyon said.
Ashley Keegan, now 20, plays softball for Bentley University and said coach "Kev" played a big role in making that happen. She recalled one high-pressure game during her freshman year when he called her in to pitch.
It was late in the game and she was noticeably nervous. "He pulled me aside and said 'Take a deep breath; you got this.'"
"He really saw the best in people," she said. "He was always going the extra mile for others."
He made practice fun, too, she said.
"There was never a day that we went to practice and didn't want to be there," she said. "He would walk into the gym and have a smile on his face and the whole room would light up."
When a player on his softball team, Morgan Leighfield, needed a hand, Kevin and Kellie took her in as their own. "[That] just speaks to everything that he would do for somebody," Joe said of his brother.
As sad as they are right now, the family feels comforted to know how many people Kevin helped along the way, he said.
"We can really see the full magnitude and the full impact of Kevin and what he did for the community," he said. "It's really actually keeping us afloat right now."
Knowing that so many are grieving alongside them reaffirms "what our family knew," Joe said. "He walked the walk."
James Healey, Kevin's neighbor and longtime friend, said he won't soon forget last week's terrible news. He said his son had tears in his eyes when he picked him up from school at Taconic that day.
"It was a shock and a heartbreak — the kind that takes your breath away," he said.
He had a way of saving a special spot in his heart for people, Healey said.
"He was the biggest guy I knew, but he never wanted to make anyone feel small," he said.
His daughter, Ashlynn Healey, 16, said Taconic hasn't been the same in recent days, especially the area near Kevin's second-floor classroom. "That hallway has got this weird vibe to it now."
Kevin was a positive force in the gym, too, according to Jim Ramondetta, owner of Berkshire Nautilus.
"As big as Kevin was — because he was a big guy — he was that big heart-hearted," he said. "He was always concerned about the little guy, the underdog."
He nearly became a police officer in Pittsfield after earning his degree in criminal justice, Kellie recalled, but "he had reservations about it and I told him to go with his gut." He fell into teaching instead, she said, which was something at which many say he excelled.
"He was a little bit of a kid himself, deep down," she said. "He knew ways to get in doorways with kids that most teachers spend their whole careers trying to do."
Colleagues remember Kevin as a powerful advocate for kids.
"They're coming to school with so much baggage and they really need support from someone who can advocate for them, and Kevin was amazing at that," said Marcie Simonds, a vocational teacher and a 12-year colleague of Kevin's.
He was skilled at mediating tension between students and other teachers, she said, and helping adjust expectations to clear a path for a student's success. He would also help families work through obstacles.
"He had the best ability that I've probably ever seen to work with students and teachers to meet students' learning needs," she said.
If a student was having a rough day, fellow special education teacher Kim McCann said he would find something they loved — like the pair of Air Jordans he recently bought — and talk to them about it for 15 minutes before saying, "Hey, can we do this math now?"
"And then they were able to get their work done," she said. "He slid in there. He was sneaky."
He was also known for a spot-on Donald Trump impression, she said. And he was "a fixer."
McCann, who shared a classroom with Kevin, said it's been a tough few days.
"He left a big hole in all of their lives. All of us," she said. "So we need to figure out how to make a new normal."
Many refer to Kevin as "a gentle giant," and longtime friend Andrew Altsman said that's why his friend was never much of a hunter. Still, he'd go out with him just to spend quality time.
He wanted the time that he spent with loved ones to be time spent making them happy, he said.
"He wanted to make sure everyone had a smile on when he was around."
Kellie said her husband did so much without expecting anything in return.
Those who loved him often said his heart was too big, she said. "And in the end it was true."
Amanda Drane can be contacted at email@example.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.
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