By Mike Madera
Special to the Voice
“We got this.”
Words so often spoken by Pamela Bellmore Gardner when always looking to help others will now be needed in Gardner’s honor.
Gardner, the beloved principal at West Haven High School, passed away Thursday morning at the age of 49. Gardner had been battling a rare form of cancer, neuroendocrine tumors found in her stomach, since being diagnosed in June 2017.
Gardner leaves behind her husband Scott, daughter Mackenzie, son Kevin, parents Harold and Pat Bellmore, and brother Jim Bellmore.
“This is a huge loss for the entire community, let alone the school district,” West Haven Superintendent of Schools Neil C. Cavallaro said. “She was a big part of the city of West Haven. She was part of an active family, an excellent principal, a member of the PTA, and a good overall person.”
Cavallaro confirmed Gardner’s passing Thursday morning after word spread of the popular principal’s passing. Gardner had been hospitalized for several weeks until her passing.
“You wouldn’t believe the number of emails and texts from people in surrounding school districts who shared the little things she did to advance others’ careers,” Cavallaro said. “It was the little things she did to help others. That says a lot about the type of person she was.”
Gardner was a 1987 graduate of West Haven High and went on to get her Bachelor’s Degree at the University of Connecticut, her Master’s Degree at Sacred Heart University, and her Sixth Year degree in Administration at Southern Connecticut State University.
Upon her graduation, Gardner set out on her path which saw teaching stops at Fitch of Groton, Old Saybrook, and Guilford High Schools, and the assistant principal position at Bunnell High School, before landing her dream job in West Haven on July 1, 2009.
Those stops produced numerous awards and school changing events. Gardner received the UCONN Alumni Association “Excellence in High School Teaching Award” in 1995, was named Fitch High School Teacher of the Year in 1996 and Old Saybrook Teacher of the Year in 1998, and the Guilford High School Teacher of the Year in 2000.
In 2001, Gardner was awarded the Outstanding Young Alumni Award from the University of Connecticut Alumni Association, and the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award.
“When she applied for the principal position, it was a no-brainer,” Cavallaro said. “We knew we had to bring her home. That was not hard to see. Deep down, she was always there to be the principal of West Haven High School. She was at Bunnell and giving 150% I’m sure. It was a match where we wanted her and she wanted to be here.”
Gardner left her role at Guilford High after the 2002 school year and made her mark at Bunnell High in Stratford as the assistant principal.
“It’s devastating,” said Dave Johnson, who was the athletic director at Bunnell of Stratford when Gardner was the assistant principal. “It is just so sad. She was just an extremely nice person. I will miss her dearly. It’s tragic.
“Her leadership set her apart, especially her people skills,” Johnson continued. “She was such a book of knowledge. She commanded respect from everyone she was around, her students and staff. She had such wonderful people skills. She could reach the most challenging student.”
Gardner was known for her all in attitude where she would not let anything deter her school’s goals. With her popular saying of “We got this”, Gardner brought out the best in all of her staff.
“All I had to say to Pam was I had an idea about something and she would say ‘I will take care of it'” Cavallaro said. “Whether it was creating a new program or changing the way we looked at things, she made it look easy.”
“Pam was born to be the principal of West Haven High School,” West Haven athletic director Jon Capone said. “It was her dream job. Her office was open to everyone in the building. She was the heart and soul of the school. This is a devastating loss to our community.
“On a personal note, when Pam took the position, our relationship developed quickly into one of respect and friendship. Raising Mackenzie and Kevin in the world of sports, Pam and I would have many conversations about the do’s and don’ts in sports today. She really enjoyed talking about athletics, especially about our high school teams. For me, it was a great feeling going to work every day knowing your 100% on the same page with your principal.”
Perhaps Gardner’s biggest strength in school and anywhere she went, was her ability to deal with people. No problem seemed too big, and Gardner would often leave the toughest of situations with smiles on everyone’s faces.
“Pam was really good dealing with difficult situations and people,” West Haven High assistant principal Dana Paredes said. “She was the best at that. She could take an angry parent or teacher and make them understand the situation. She really had a way with speaking with people.”
Paredes has been tasked with the job of leading the high school in Gardner’s absence. While the task was a major one, Paredes often reminded herself of what Gardner taught her.
“Pam was the person who really made me who I am as an administrator,” Paredes said. “She taught me everything about the job. She showed me how to step into a leadership role. What I always said was, I wanted to make sure I made every decision in the way Pam would have wanted and she would be proud of. I always said I had to channel my inner Pam.”
Gardner is a lifelong Westie and never forgot where she came from. Along with going above and beyond to improve the careers of others in her field, Gardner was the biggest advocate of promoting the West Haven students.
“Her greatest attribute was she was all about showcasing our kids and making them look good,” Cavallaro said. “She made sure the kids were in the spotlight. Senior awards were her pride and joy every year. You could hear it in her voice when she made the announcement that we were exceeding the previous year’s numbers in what was given out to the graduating class. She was all about the kids.”
Gardner’s closeness to the administrators was clearly evident in the funeral procession as Cavallaro, Capone and high school gym teacher and long-time friend Joe Morrell were pallbearers.
“She made everyone around her a better person,” West Haven hockey and softball coach Morrell said. “She made people better. I asked both of my teams to be kind to others. That’s what she was.”
When word came out of Gardner’s passing on Thursday, it was an emotional time at the high school. Buses were called and school was dismissed early to allow not only the students time to deal with the death, but also for the staff and administrators as well.
According to Paredes, in a moment as tragic as this, she was extremely proud of the student body, something she knew all along.
On Friday morning, under the direction of band director Cassandra Marcella, the band paid tribute to Gardner in front of the late principal’s office, where a memorial was set up, by playing “Somewhere.”
“It is exactly what I expected from everyone,” Paredes said. “I am so proud of all the students and teachers. There are 1,500 high school kids and you could hear a pin drop when they walked by the memorial. It was silent. No one had their phones out. They were so respectful to honor her memory. We had to allow the adults to mourn too. We are trying to stay strong for the kids, but here we are on the verge of falling apart too.”
West Haven mayor Nancy Rossi issued a statement I regards to the passing of Gardner.
“West Haven is heartbroken by the loss of Pamela Bellmore Gardner, a devoted principal and educator and a woman of character and strength,” Rossi said. “The pride and rock of West Haven High School, Pam brought integrity, wisdom and a great love of West Haven and its people.
“I am grateful for her dedication to nurturing young minds and lighting the way for our high school’s bright future. All of us here at City Hall will miss Pam, as will the thousands of Westies she inspired with her heroic struggle against cancer. The residents of West Haven join me in extending our heartfelt condolences to the Gardner and Bellmore families at this difficult time.”
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to West Haven High School Senior Scholarship Fund, ATTN: Dana Parades 1 McDonough Plaza, West Haven, CT 06516.