Amy Zell was adamant that she didn’t belong as a member of the Brookfield Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame Class of 2020, but she also was quick to point out that she understood where she fit in within the group.
Inducted with a cardiologist, a medical researcher, a jazz musician and educator, a resort executive and a man who dedicated his life to improving Brookfield, her accomplishments paled, Zell said.
“We often don’t see ourselves the way others see us,” she said at the March 5 induction ceremony. “It’s very true for me. We don’t see who we represent to other people.”
But, as someone who promotes wellness through her work with the disabled and survivors of suicide loss, Zell recognized that her role is equal to theirs if you look at the five elements of wellness and how those elements are just as important in a community as they are in an individual. Those elements are the spiritual, the physical, the cognitive, the emotional and the social.
Inductee Harold Danko, a jazz musician and educator, is the spiritual element because music touches the soul, Zell said. Adam Elhaddi, a cardiologist, “takes care of the body, brings that balance to us,” she said. James Seckler represents the cognitive through his medical research into HIV/AIDS, respiratory function and ways to reverse opioid overdose and addiction. Jack Damioli, president of the luxury resort properties known as the Broadmoor, is the social aspect of wellness. Zell is the emotional.
“We all are connected,” said Zell, a 1990 Brookfield High graduate. “My goal is to make sure that you all see each other and understand the impact that you can have on yourself and other people when you’re thinking about what those connections are.”
Posthumous inductee James Hoffman Jr. “is the accumulation of all of that,” Zell said. “He is part of all of those parts of wellness because he brings that all together to build our community.”
“It’s fantastic that you were able to see that in each of the inductees, to bring that back together for Brookfield,” Zell said to the Distinguished Hall committee.
The hall of fame was created in 2019 by Velina Jo Taylor, who was superintendent for Brookfield Local School District at the time, and is run by a group of current and former school personnel, Brookfield graduates and community members.
“The goal of this committee is to recognize Brookfield graduates who have reached a pinnacle of success in their chosen professions and have used that success to help others,” said Bob Kozar, committee member, ceremony emcee and retired teacher.
The 2020 class is the second to be inducted. There will not be a 2021 class because of issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the 2022 class will be announced this spring with its induction set for the fall.
The inductees – except Damioli, who could not make the festivities because of business – spent March 4 at the school, the first time most of them had set foot in it since it opened in 2011. Supt. Toby Gibson led a tour, and talked about some of the program initiatives the school has begun and plans to begin.
The inductees spoke to high school students about themselves and their careers at an assembly, and then met with individual classes.
Danko, from the Brookfield High Class of 1965, said he hesitated to use the word that popped into his head following all of this activity – transformative – but said the events over the two days inspired him and made him look back on his teaching in a new way.
“Things are connecting in a way that is quite transformative,” he said. “This is quite a great experience and I’m very proud to be here.”
Elhaddi, the son of Yemeni immigrants, cataloged the people who had guided his choices, mentored him and provided life-long inspiration to him to excel. His table included his mother, Hameada; his sister, Joanna; his Brookfield classmate Michael Cheney and Cheney’s family; and Dr. J. Ronald Mikolich, to whom Elhaddi said he owes his cardiology career.
With many of his former teachers and coaches sitting in attendance at the ceremony, Elhaddi said their influence upon him cannot be understated.
“You have shaped this man,” said the graduate of the Class of 1994.
“After your family at home, your teachers, your educators, your support staff, your classmates, they’re your second family,” Elhaddi said. “Nearly eight hours a day, every weekday, for years and years, obviously, in our small community, you become attached and close, and those experiences shape you. They make you who you are. From elementary school all the way to high school, they matter.”
Seckler, from the Class of 1998, told the high school students right off the bat that he hated high school. But, that didn’t mean that he didn’t get anything out of it. French teacher Diane Riefstahl inspired his love of languages, and he can read and write “over a dozen, now,” he said. As a researcher, Seckler said he is constantly transported back to Kevin Boyd’s physics class. Speaking to math teachers Ernie Falhamer and Dan Deramo, Seckler said he has been helping a friend who has gone back to college with her math assignments. “It was like you two were sitting on my shoulders and I was remembering how patient you were with me and just how incredibly kind you were and how great your explanations were,” Seckler said. “I channeled that into helping her.”
“Yeah, I really did hate high school, but you all were the highlights and you’ve stayed with me throughout my entire life, and you still inspire me,” he said.
The induction of Hoffman, a 1935 graduate, brought together his children, James III, a local attorney, former school board member and committee member; Robin Hoffman; and Shirley Hoffman Warren, who noted that they learned things about their father through their research of his life and accomplishments.
“It was really wonderful for my brother, my sister and I to actually learn a lot more about our father,” Robin said. “We all knew the kind of impact he had on the community and what a wonderful person he was, but it was really quite wonderful. It brought us all together to kind of tell stories about our father. We just want to thank you for having us here.”
Hoffman Jr. was an attorney, long-time member of the Brookfield Optimist Club, first judge of what is now Trumbull County Eastern District Court, World War II veteran and Brookfield school board member. His community building initiatives included preserving the green in Brookfield Center, aiding development of the industrial park at Routes 82 and 7 and the former Valley View Department Store, and bringing the Kenley Players, a musical theater group, to Warren.
The stories of their father were not lost on the students, Robin said.
“They were just so courteous,” she said. “Some of the students, after our presentation, actually approached us afterwards and thanked us for the work that our father did, and they were just really appreciative. That was a very nice thing to see.”
Debbie Bika accepted the induction of her brother, Damioli, a 1977 graduate. She said his career can be traced to his love of golf, which started at age 10 when he caddied at Yankee Run Golf Course. He cherished his time working under Bill, Ben and Gary McMullin, and the friendships he developed there, Bika said.
“Jack believes his success in his career is a testament to the importance of family and smalltown values,” Bika said. “He credits his family, education at Brookfield, time spent working and playing at Yankee Run and the people in Brookfield with the skills he carries with him today – teamwork, competition, overcoming adversity, communication skills, honor and integrity.”
Editor’s note: Dr. J. Ronald Mikolich died April 7 at the age of 72.