Time has proven that Steve Mayer’s legacy is larger than one moment. Larger than the moment.
Two years have passed since a car driven by a Robbinsville High School student struck and killed the Robbinsville Schools superintendent and his dog, Gertie, April 19, 2016. That day and the days that followed changed Robbinsville forever.
But it quickly became clear that Mayer wouldn’t be defined by how he died. He had long been mindful of his reputation and the path he led, and the school district followed suit.
This could be applied to practical things, such as the way the school district looks for alternative revenue sources, the cultivating of the Robbinsville Extended Day program, the creation of an energy savings improvement plan and the hiring of a school resource officer.
It could be seen in the way he approached education, believing in opportunities and access for all students. He felt strongly that students needed to learn how to be citizens and to have a voice, which is why he encouraged involving students in discussions. The district continues to hold student focus groups so the education in Robbinsville Schools reflects those the district serves.
It’s seen in Robbinsville’s curriculum, which prioritizes research and communication skills thanks to Mayer’s push.
“One of the things that we always talk about is we stand on the shoulders that came before us,” said superintendent Kathie Foster, who served as the second in command under Mayer. “Dr. Mayer—Steve, as we all know him—really created a wonderful pathway for Robbinsville schools to continue.”
But, on the surface, these are things every superintendent does. So why does Mayer continue to serve as a guide for the Robbinsville community?
Those who knew him know the answer. Mayer’s is a legacy of love.
“He made so many deep, abiding and personal connections,” Foster said. “That’s why we talk about him. He was such a genuine person. His heart was so big and so visible. He shared with everyone. You talk with people, and they say that he was such a close friend of theirs. You hear that from so many people. Part of that is the openness to love everyone. That’s who he was. He was not afraid to love and accept.”
This has been made apparent to every person who walks through the front doors of a Robbinsville school. In the vestibule of each of the district’s three schools, there’s a plaque. On it is Mayer with his trademark smile and the phrase, “Make someone’s day today.”
Those four words—“Make someone’s day today”—spread like wildfire around Robbinsville after Mayer’s memorial service, when Mayer’s son Shaun included them in his eulogy of his father.
The Robbinsville community has used the phrase as a rallying call. But Mayer lived the words without ever uttering them in public.
Everyone who knew Mayer has a story of how he somehow brightened their day. The power of those small acts of kindness continue to live on, even though recalling them also means dredging up emotions still raw from his absence.
Sharon DeVito, who serves on the Robbinsville Board of Education and as a Robbinsville Education Foundation trustee, has so many examples that it takes her awhile to collect her thoughts when asked. The past two years have been particularly difficult for her. But the power of one story demonstrates what Mayer meant to her and her family, so she shares it even though it hurts to do so.
DeVito’s daughter, Rebecca, was deaf but could hear and process speech with the assistance of hearing aids. Because of this, DeVito urged Rebecca to practice after she landed an interview for a job with the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district. Rebecca arranged a mock interview with Robbinsville Schools human resources director Diane Dwyer. (Dwyer died suddenly in 2013 at age 48, one painful aspect of this recollection.)
Mayer heard about Rebecca’s practice interview, and called DeVito wondering why she hadn’t asked him to help. DeVito said she thought, as the head of a school district, he would be too busy. He said he was never too busy to help, and insisted to sit in on Rebecca’s mock interview. Mayer and Dwyer prepped Rebecca. She nailed the real interview, and got the job.
Rebecca loved her job in the WW-P district, where she worked with special needs students as an instructional assistant until last year. She died in June from a rare cancer called metastatic angiosarcoma. She’s buried in a plot next to Mayer.
“Steve left his footprints on our hearts and our district,” DeVito said. “Watching him interact with students through the lens of a parent, I saw a man that genuinely cared for and respected the students.”
The district has worked so its students learn these attributes, the ones that made Mayer so special—empathy, compassion, resilience. The corporate world calls these “soft skills,” but people who crossed paths with Mayer know better than most there’s nothing soft about them. Foster, the superintendent, suggested a more suitable term would be “human.” For it was with those skills, Mayer changed countless lives—merely by embracing others’ humanity. It’s also what those same people miss most about him.
“You can’t help but be changed,” Foster said. “As always, there’s a deep loss that we know is going to carry with us. But we also were so inspired that the way we begin to heal and to carry on his legacy is to remember his passion, kindness and compassion for others.”
In other words, to love.
In the weeks following Mayer’s death, seemingly everyone in Robbinsville reflected on Mayer and what he meant to the community. Some of those reflections wound up published. Others were more personal.
The author of one of those personal reflections was Fran McKenna, who served officially as Mayer’s secretary but worked as a confidant, as well as an editor and a proofreader for Mayer’s many writings. She also is a friend to the superintendent and his family.
Discussing Mayer still stings for McKenna, but she sat down anyway last month to reflect in writing once again.
In her essay, she summed up why Robbinsville residents related to Mayer and why he lives on in each of them today:
“Steve Mayer…Boss. Friend. Seeker. Good Steward. Family Man. Scholar. Sports Fan. Nature Lover. Teacher. Leader. Champion of Justice. Inspiration.
“An open minded enthusiast for children, families and the Robbinsville community, Steve had a passion for new ideas and loved the process—and the challenge—of helping people to see the world in new and different ways. He had a quick mind and was rarely at a loss for words. My friend was as smart as he was fun. He was committed to excellence and couldn’t help but look to uncover the quiet hero in every individual that crossed his path. By nature, he was an optimist who fostered independence in others by encouraging them to fly. He provided me, and countless others, with wings to soar and a soft place to fall in the event of a crash landing. I am just one of many whose lives are richer and more meaningful for having had the good fortune to have known him.”