ELLSWORTH — The exit could hardly have been more subtle.
In the afternoon hours March 16, the day that would be the last of in-school instruction at Ellsworth High School ahead of the transition to remote learning, many at the school were preparing for what at the time had been announced as merely a two-week change in plans. Yet one staff member, a man whose presence has been a constant at the school for nearly five decades, had an inkling this was the end.
Indeed, as many students, teachers and administrators left belongings in their lockers, desk areas and offices in anticipation of a return, Brian Higgins was busy doing a thorough cleanout. Then, unbeknownst to his students and colleagues, he slipped out a side door on the north side of the school and left the building on a school day for the final time.
“I walked out one of those doors, I think it was No. 7 or maybe No. 8, and that was it,” Higgins said. “Nobody knew I left; nobody knew I was packing; nobody was there to help me pack. It was a quiet departure.”
For some, leaving a longtime job in such a manner would be an unceremonious end to a memorable career. Yet for Higgins, who has never yearned for fanfare or attention, going out this way simply felt right.
Higgins’ tenure as an Ellsworth High School teacher came to a close Friday with the school’s final day of remote learning for the 2019-20 school year. It marked the end of a 46-year career, one that not even Higgins himself could have imagined when it began.
“I never thought I would be here for 46 years,” Higgins said. “It doesn’t seem that it’s been that long at all, but my certifications just kept coming up over the years. I kept renewing them and renewing them, and here I am.”
Higgins came to Ellsworth High School in 1974 at the age of 29. A graduate of Hampden Academy and Springfield College, he arrived in Ellsworth after spending five years with the United States Navy during the Vietnam War and two years at Mitchell College in New London, Conn.
Although he was seven years removed from his time at Springfield when he began searching for his first post-Navy job, Higgins was offered assistance from the school’s placement office to take his next step. Ellsworth High School needed a physical education teacher, and then-Superintendent Dale Higgins offered him the job.
“Back then, you didn’t have to go through all these committees and meet with one group and then another group,” Higgins said. “I drove up there, interviewed for the job and went back, and they called me the next day and said, ‘We’ll have you if you want to work.’”
The Ellsworth School Department had one request: Higgins would need to coach the school’s boys’ soccer team. Thanks to Higgins’ degree from Springfield, a school known for its strong athletic coaching program, Ellsworth Athletic Director Stu Taylor knew the school had found the right person for the position.
“During the interview, Dale asked me, ‘Can you coach soccer?’” Higgins recalled. “Stu said, ‘Dale, he graduated from Springfield College; you’re taught to coach anything there.’ I wanted the job, so I was willing to coach.”
Higgins won 14 regional championships, four state championships and a state-record 566 games prior to stepping down as Ellsworth’s head soccer coach following the 2015 season. He has also spent the past 36 years as head coach of the school’s tennis team, a position he will retain despite his retirement as an educator.
Higgins’ physical education classes have focused on sports and activities in which students might not have the propensity to participate outside of school hours. Although sports such as soccer and basketball often generate the most buzz, Higgins has stressed sports and activities that are less team-oriented.
“I tell [my students], ‘The sports you play after school aren’t ones you’re to play forever, but the ones we play here are ones you’ll be able to play when you’re 80 years old,’” Higgins said. “We focus more on sports like tennis, badminton, archery and pickleball. We had pickleball all the way back in 1984, and I think we were one of the first schools to have it.”
Although most of Higgins’ teaching career has come on the school’s athletic fields or in the gymnasium, he also taught health for a period of roughly a decade. Going from that environment to a traditional classroom setting, he said, took some serious adjusting.
“That was different,” Higgins said. “When you’re in the field or in the gym, everybody is active and moving around, but when you’re in the classroom, every single beady eye is looking right at you while you’re saying stuff.”
Ellsworth Athletic Director Josh Frost said that Mark Ensworth, the head boys’ soccer coach and assistant tennis coach at George Stevens Academy, is set to succeed Higgins as physical education teacher. Ensworth will continue to coach at GSA while teaching at Ellsworth.
Frost, a 1998 Ellsworth High School graduate, was one of many players to play for Higgins’ acclaimed boys’ soccer teams during his time in high school. He began his tenure as athletic director in July 2015, just as Higgins was preparing for his final season as the team’s head coach.
“[I think the news has] kind of been swept under the rug because of everything going on,” Frost said. “That’s kind of the way Brian would want it.”
In addition to coaching tennis, Higgins said he will continue to step in when needed as a substitute teacher for physical education and special education. As to what else his future holds, Higgins said he’ll still be involved in the Ellsworth community — just perhaps not in a work capacity.
“I guess I could go be a greeter at Walmart, but I think I’d just scare people away,” Higgins joked. “I’m sure we’ll still go to games and be around once everything comes back. I’ve told so many kids, ‘I might not be coaching, but I’ll still come watch you play.’ I’ll still be around.”