In twos and threes, some crying, some talking, students at the Proviso Mathematics and Science Academy spent their lunch hours Friday remembering their teacher, coach, mentor and friend, Tom Dix.
After a long, hard battle with cancer, Dix, 39, founder of the Proviso Mathematics and Science Academy robotics club, died early morning Sept. 17.
"This is an unfortunate loss for the Proviso family. Our hearts go out to him and his family. He will be sorely missed," School Board President Chris Welch said. "He left an impression on PMSA that will live on for a long time. Our robotics program was extremely successful and the kids loved him."
Dix started teaching at PMSA in the 2006-2007 school year. School officials said the innovation lab where the robotics club worked will be dedicated to Dix.
"He took an empty shell and made it into a vibrant lab and used it in the way it was intended," PMSA Principal Ed Moyer said.
For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology program participant Jackie Moore, team manager for the Chicago Knights robotics team, said Dix was an honored FIRST knight.
"We met in May of 2006 when he was looking to start a (FIRST Lego League)," Moore said. "His passion for teaching and the value of FIRST was so great that he changed schools twice before he started the team."
Moore said of the many people she had helped form robotics teams, Dix was the most persistent and consistently committed.
"Shortly after aggressive (cancer) treatment, he managed to sit in the stands and cheer his team on last year," she said. "That is a memory of him that I will hold dear."
Parent and robotics club volunteer Jocelyn Gougisha said Dix was more like one of the students in the club than a teacher.
"His enthusiasm was like that of the teenagers," she said. "He put his heart and soul into it when he brought the robotics team to PMSA."
Gougisha said Moyer saw that enthusiasm and gave him support.
"You have no idea what it means to this area to introduce the kids to the world of robotics and engineering," she said. "He's inspired friends, parents and other teachers to come in and help. That's his legacy."
Moyer said Dix helped rebuild the physics program and spent countless hours working on the robotics program.
"The first year was entirely his own," Moyer said. "He was incredibly committed to kids and I deeply value that in a teacher. He was an amazing person."
The news of Dix's death spread through the building like wildfire, Moyer said, and many students knew about it before the staff.
"It impacted the robotics students the hardest, but he had made an impact on so many kids," he said. "Kids organized a gathering in his classroom during the lunch periods. It was the opportunity for students to say anything they wanted to. Or to not say anything. Some were crying. Some were drawing. They started signing the first robot they had made."
Moyer said staff wanted to make sure they were there to support students.
"This is our first loss as a community," he said. "It was hard. Today was better. Monday will get a little better still. He would have wanted the kids to go on."
The challenge now is to keep the work alive. The team is solid with students and parents and community volunteers, but Moyer said he has to find someone with the background in science and engineering.
"We will miss (Dix's) leadership. All the things he took care of, we have to make sure those don't fall through the cracks," Moyer said. "We will see who we can recruit. But the kids have put in too much time and effort - this season is going to be for Mr. Dix."
There will be a memorial service honoring Dix at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 27, at the 19th Century Club, 178 Forest Ave. in Oak Park. RSVP to Judy Erickson, firstname.lastname@example.org or call (708) 386-4330. Donations are welcome to PMSA's robotics club and can be sent to Janet Redmond at PMSA.
(This story was written by Mario Bartoletti of the Proviso Herald Newspaper.)