DUNEDIN — The bond between Mr. Ron and a class of second-graders at Garrison-Jones Elementary School began with a simple prank.
Here's how 7-year-old Allison White described it in a letter edited for spelling:
"One day Mr. Ron switched one of my friends' desks … And there was a note. It said, 'your desk is somewhere in the classroom.' And then a couple of my friends came running up to my teacher saying her desk is gone … It was in the storage room."
Mr. Ron is Ronald Irwin, 50. He worked as a night plant operator at Garrison-Jones. His job was to prepare the classrooms for the next day, cleaning out trash cans, dusting and vacuuming.
When the students in Jennifer Visalli's second-grade class returned from spring break, Visalli and principal Karen Buckles told the students Mr. Ron died in a motorcycle accident March 28.
According to the Florida Highway Patrol, Irwin lost control of his Harley-Davidson on the Bayside Bridge, careened into the median and slammed into trees. His motorcycle then slid into the northbound lane and hit two cars.
The students were shocked by the loss of their friend. They asked Visalli if they could draw pictures and write letters about him. The letters were edited for spelling.
"April 7th, 2008 our class was hurting," wrote Kaitlyn Shaw, 8. "Why you ask? Mr. Ron died! We were all in shock … We love you, Mr. Ron."
The impact Irwin had on the kids went beyond prepping the classroom, Visalli said. He added spontaneity and a bit of mischief into an otherwise structured school day.
At the end of the day, Irwin would come to Visalli's class and start working while the kids were waiting for their buses. He would return after the kids left and switch around a desk or two.
"Mr. Ron was really nice and funny. He played tricks on everyone, like moving everyone's desk," wrote Nick Giallourakis, 8. "He was everyone's friend. Everyone is sad. But he made everyone happy!"
Soon kids began telling Mr. Ron where they wanted their desks moved, Visalli said. He'd move around the teddy bears in the classroom. Once when he came to work early, he helped the kids draw on the sidewalk with chalk.
"Everything as simple as just having a different place to sit brought them so much joy," Visalli said. "Just the attention, too."
Irwin wanted to include every student in his desk-moving scheme, so he asked Visalli for a list of kids who hadn't had their desks switched yet. When she kept forgetting, he left a note in a student's desk.
"Tell your teacher that she needs to ask you something," it said.
The kids struck back with their own prank. When they spotted Irwin arriving at school, they would scramble to hide the — well, 8-year-old Julia Rogers can tell you:
"Mr. Ron was a funny man. I will miss him … Me and my friend started moving the trash can to get back at Mr. Ron for moving our desks."
He would come in smiling, Visalli said.
"Where are my garbage cans today?" he would ask.
The desk-switching stunt doesn't surprise Irwin's son, Justin Irwin, 27.
"Every time he was around kids, that's all he does," he said. "Joke around."
Irwin married twice and has five sons, two stepchildren and four grandchildren. He loved to hunt and fish, his family said. He caught a lot of stingrays.
Irwin grew up in Lockport, N.Y., and was a Miami Dolphins fan. Every week he was optimistic they would win, Justin Irwin said.
Irwin was supposed to drive to Panama City this week to see his youngest son, 18-year-old Cody, who was visiting from New York on spring break. Cody Irwin said his father was proud that he is graduating from high school in June.
"He told me … how he never wanted to leave Florida because he found the perfect job for himself," Cody Irwin said. "He loved the co-workers, he loved the kids."
Or, as 8-year-old Troy Jones put it:
"Mr. Ron brought me joy and happiness into my life," he wrote. "Me and my classmates brought happiness and joy to Mr. Ron."
Tamara El-Khoury can be reached at (727) 445-4181 or [email protected]