Mr. Pete’s Tree – The Contest Winner!

Laura Bittman Ward submitted this e-mail written by her father. Laura explains:

My dad sends out an email every Thursday to a group of his old high school friends who he reconnected with at their 50th reunion a few years back.

My uncle Peter died last summer, he was only in his early 50s. He’d worked at a school in New Milford, and about two months ago they dedicated a tree to him, so this was the Thursday email my dad sent out about it.

Like my dad said, really, how many of us will ever have a TREE planted in our memory after we’re gone???

Thanks to Laura and her father for sharing this.

Mr. Pete’s Tree

On May 23, the students and teachers of The Gibb Elementary School of New Milford, NJ planted a tree in memory of my brother Pete. Today, July 8, is the anniversary of Pete’s passing, and I keep hearing his voice and seeing his sweet smile.

Life was not easy for Pete. Considering all he endured, Pete could have been a grumpy, cantankerous and sour guy All through his life he was hampered by bad legs, and his limitations affected his self-confidence…but not his sense of humor. Even when times were toughest, Pete found much to be happy about. His joy for life centered on his wife Eileen, his son Ryan, his family, his lifelong friends Billy and Joey, his pets and the many friends he made during his years in River Edge. In his final years, Pete also found peace and happiness in his role as the head custodian at the Gibb School, and as a member of the close-knit Gibb School family.

Pete was always good at making people laugh. If it wasn’t with a sly one-liner it was with the greeting cards that he found throughout the year and delivered for your birthday. Every July 7th, I knew I could count on receiving a thoroughly disrespectful yet hilarious card that Pete had discovered way back in January or February. He never failed to insult me with a card that made me laugh out loud.

Pete was a hard worker. When he began his job at the Gibb School, he quickly proved his ability to deliver more than anyone at the school expected. Always the first to arrive every day. Always available to handle any unpleasant chore. And always doing his job with a grin and a kind word or funny line. Within a year of his arrival at Gibb School, the kids had come to refer to him respectfully as “Mr. Pete.” The teachers followed suit and by the end of that first year, Peter had a large and growing fan club.

When Pete was first diagnosed with renal cancer and had to take a leave from his job for treatment, all the children and adults in the school rooted for his recovery and return. He came back to work after two months of radiation therapy. Then, for the next two years, although he was undergoing treatment with a drug called Sutent which often left him extremely tired and weakened, Pete almost never missed a day at work. On snowy days he was at the school before daybreak with his crew, working as hard as any crewmember to clear the walks and parking lot. Many days he had to fight through pain, exhaustion, and discomfort. But he never lost his smile or kind manner.

Two years before he finally had to stop working, Peter struck up a friendship with the new school principal. When the principal arrived to work on his first day at the job, he was in the school at 7:15 A.M.  Peter had been there for more than an hour and when he saw the new principal, he walked up to him and with that winning grin, welcomed the newcomer aboard. “Hi! You must be the new guy,” Pete said. From that moment on Pete and the principal were partners, working together to help, each in his own way, to make the Gibb School a great school.

I was late for the beginning of the tree planting ceremony. A massive traffic jam on Route 4 caused Rosary and I to arrive 15 minutes late. Thankfully, all the other members of our family arrived on time. As we scurried along to the school, we were greeted by the sight of 300 students, teachers, and parents who were gathered around the front of the school to honor “Mr. Pete.” Two of the fifth grade children, a girl and a boy, who had known Peter since their kindergarten days read speeches about the man they confirmed was always, “kind, funny, and peaceful.”  The boy spoke of a day when he noticed that Peter seemed to be very weak and was struggling to sweep the cafeteria floor. Sensing Peter’s dilemma, the boy grabbed a broom and pitched in to help Mr. Pete finish the job. Pete, it seems, was too choked up by the boy’s kindness to do anything but offer his sweet smile as a thank you.

The young and vibrant fifth grade teacher who helped plan the ceremony spoke of her first year on the job when Mr. Pete befriended her.  At the end of her first season, the teacher nervously awaited to hear from the principal, hoping with all her might that she had been hired for the next year. When the principal gave her the good news in his office, she danced down the hallway. Pete was coming the other way and seeing her brilliant smile exclaimed, “You got rehired, you’re coming back. That’s great.”

The ceremony on that bright spring day ended with each student from the three fifth grade classes bringing gifts of thanks to Mr. Pete. Each student in the three classes had painted a small rock in memory of Peter. The rocks were placed in a colorful circle around the base of the tree. My favorite is a rock with a portrait of Pete. In the portrait, Pete’s huge and beautiful blue eyes are all you see. You can see Pete’s soul in those kind eyes.

In years to come, Pete’s tree will grow. The messages on the rocks will slowly fade. And new generations of students will pass through the Gibb School. Some will see Pete’s tree and memorial and ask about him. One day, the teachers who knew Peter will also be gone. Perhaps from time to time, students who knew and cared about Pete will return –as we all do — to revisit “the old school.” Pete’s tree and memorial will be waiting for them, a loving reminder of a loving man.

Peter Bittmann was the best Bittmann of us all. I hope to visit his tree every year, happy to reaffirm that my baby brother, who left us too soon, touched many lives and was loved by all he touched. As the penultimate song of the Beatles iconic album “Abbey Road ” tells us, “And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”