By Alex Lippa
The annual ceremony honoring John Greenleaf Whittier and childhood sweetheart Lydia Ayer this year also paid tribute to the man who started the event more than 20 years ago: Barney Gallagher.
A moment of silence was held in memory of Gallagher, the former Haverhill Gazette editor and longtime Eagle-Tribune columnist, who died in April.
"It's been very emotional (without Barney)," said Gus Reusch, curator of the Whittier Birthplace. "Barney wanted John Greenleaf Whittier's poetry to live throughout Haverhill."
The ceremony helps achieve that goal by teaching school children about Whittier.
It is held at Lydia Ayer's grave site in Walnut cemetery and includes recitation of Whittier's poem "In School Days" by fifth-grade students from Bradford Elementary School.
Declan Bryer and Isobel Donnelly were selected to play the parts of Whittier and Ayer at this year's ceremony, held last Thursday, and dressed in traditional 19th century attire. The students placed flowers at Ayer's grave and presented flower bouquets to their teachers.
"In School Days" was written by Whittier in Ayer's memory and recalls the time both were children and the day Ayer told Whittier she was sorry she had beaten him in a school spelling bee — "Because, you see, I love you."
Ayer died of pneumonia when she was just 14.
"It's really a spectacular story," said Reusch. "You don't meet many people who would rather come in second than in first."
Gallagher was remembered by all for the work he put into the ceremony.
"He just knew the perfect age to do the ceremony with," Reusch. "He knew fourth-graders would be too giggly and that sixth-graders wouldn't want to hold each other's hands. He just put so much thought into everything about this ceremony."
When Gallagher became ill, Reusch took over organizing the ceremony, but Gallagher attended it as recently as last year.
"The poem was about love, so (Gallagher) always used to have it on Valentine's Day," said Reusch. "But the kids were so anxious to just get back on the bus because it was so cold out. Now we just always do it in the spring."
This year's ceremony also attracted a group from Life Visions, an agency based in Salem, N.H., that works with disabled adults.
Shawna Lamarine of Life Visions said the group had previously visited the Whittier birthplace.
"I found the Whittier birthplace online and (the members) all enjoy poetry and express interest in it," said Lamarine. "We had a tour of the birthplace and (Reusch) told us to come back for the ceremony."
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