NAUGATUCK — At closing time, the water coolers inside Naugatuck Town Hall are usually surrounded by politicians still debating that night’s issues, reporters looking for a quote and sports fans talking about the great play, the bad call or the next big game.
Every night, custodian John Kochis would join the conversation — the one about sports, of course. Like the rest of us, he’d play Monday morning quarterback, questioning the coaches’ decisions, the players’ shot attempts, the decision to trade a pitcher for a slugger. Then he’d ask everybody about their families, walk you to the door and gracefully close it behind the last visitors after bidding them a good night. Like a good bartender, John had a knack for making you feel welcome while gently reminding you when it was time for last call.
On Tuesday night, I pulled into the Town Hall parking lot not only anticipating what I’d write about but how I would answer John’s questions about our favorite team: Where did they go wrong? Should they have switched defenses? Will the coach come back for another year?
You see, John and I shared a bond that’s not too common in Connecticut: We are Syracuse University basketball fans. John’s daughter, Alicea, graduated from SU around the time I did, and she remained in Central New York to coach the SU women’s rowing team. Alicea, her two children and John’s adult son, B.J., were among the few things John liked to talk about more than the Syracuse Orange and the Boston Red Sox.
As I walked through the double glass doors into Town Hall on Tuesday, I thought, “I hope I get a good story out of this meeting,” and, “I hope John wants to talk about Syracuse and not the Red Sox.” But the first person I saw wasn’t John; it was his supervisor, Mike Massicotte. Mike broke the awful news: John had passed away suddenly on Monday. He was 65.
My thoughts immediately went to his wife, Eileen, and family: The Kochis family is very close. My second thought was how lucky I was to have known him.
He had been kind and conversational from the first day we met a decade ago. Previously, I knew John’s children from Naugatuck High School; we were friends in the social media sense of the word, but here in the real world, we’d say we are acquaintances. I had interviewed John’s wife for a story years ago and said hello when I saw her around town. Other than that, my relationship with John was Syracuse sports.
But John was always kind — to me, to elected officials, to residents who visited Town Hall. No matter how badly he wanted to get home, he’d always stay late when I needed to finish a story, remaining at Town Hall for up to a half-hour as I asked for just two more minutes, just two more minutes. John never complained; he would continue talking sports or about his family while I attacked my laptop with furious keystrokes.
One night after a Board of Finance meeting, he helped me search high and low for my car keys. We never found them, but John kept looking. He loved to bust me about that: “How do you lose your keys while sitting at a meeting?” he would ask. So I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my wife found those keys months later: They were at the bottom of my book bag.
John demonstrated life lessons that I will always remember: Why you should be kind to everyone, from the pesky reporter at work, to the random person you see on the street; and the value of hard work to help your family, even if it means taking a second job as a night janitor to help pay tuition.
So thank you, John. Thank you for the friendly banter, for waiting to close the doors and for being one of the good guys. We will always keep a spot open for you at the water cooler.