Robert Potter Scholarship Goes to Dania Merilan
Art teacher Robert Potter was a unique individual. So is Dania Merilan, a member of Huntington High School's Class of 2012. The teenager was presented with a scholarship named for the popular educator and artist during this year's senior academic awards night ceremony in the school auditorium.
Mr. Potter passed away suddenly in November 2010, dealing an indescribable blow to his family, colleagues and students. The Associated Teachers of Huntington, the professional organization of the district's teachers, decided to create a scholarship to honor Mr. Potter's memory.
The ATH plans to award a $1,000 scholarship for ten consecutive years. The criteria for receiving the scholarship states the recipient needs to display an ability to think creatively and to express their unique "voice" in their work, perseverance and growth in school work, willingness to challenge oneself and an ability to inspire others.
"Last year the high school lost an artist, a friend and a believer when Robert Potter passed away," ATH President James Graber said at this year's awards night. "He epitomized the true educator and believed that all of us, teachers, parents and students alike, should work to inspire those around us. From the many qualified applicants, Dania Merilan stood out most as one that seeks to carry his torch forward."
Ms. Merilan is headed to Nassau Community College to study accounting and run on the track and field team. She hopes to eventually transfer to Stony Brook University, which recruited Ms. Merilan this past spring. The teenager is a blazing fast sprinter, excelling in the 100m and 200m dashes and in various relay events. She is also quite talented in the classroom and as an artist.
When Mr. Potter passed away suddenly, teachers and students reacted with disbelief. He left behind his wife, Jan and young daughter Isabel. Described as a "brilliant art teacher and one of the most remarkable people I have ever had the privilege to know and work with," by Joan R. Fretz, district director of fine and performing arts, Mr. Potter left an indelible impression on the young people in his class.
When a student would hear that Mr. Potter would be their ceramics teacher, a smile would typically come across the faces of students and their parents. The more students learned about this creative and caring teacher the more they were filled with anticipation while waiting to be in his class.
Mr. Potter, who taught ceramics (pottery) and sculpture, began working in Huntington in September 2006 after embarking on a major change in his career as an artist. After completing a bachelor of fine arts degree at Pratt Institute, he worked for 17 years for famed artist Peter Maxx.
While employed as a practicing sculptor and studying for a master's degree in art education at Adelphi University, Mr. Potter came to Huntington High School to observe art teacher Kristin Singer's class. "We knew immediately that he was an incredible artist and teacher," Mrs. Singer said. "We followed his career and after student teaching, we were thrilled to welcome him to our Huntington art faculty."
Huntington art teacher Ayallah Jeddah came to Huntington the same year as Mr. Potter. "He was such an inspiration for all of us," Ms. Jeddah said. "He cared so deeply about his kids and pushed them to express themselves. He made me want to be a better teacher. He was a true teacher through and through."
Although he was only in his fifth year of teaching at the school, Mr. Potter had developed a noticeable devotion to everyone at Huntington High School. "He was a great listener and took time to help everyone with anything that they needed," Ms. Fretz said. "He embraced every child that entered his classroom and took special interest in those who were not succeeding elsewhere. Everyone had a home in Robert Potter's classroom. Students found a constructive and meaningful way of expressing themselves there. He encouraged them to create art that was symbolic of their thoughts, interests and beliefs."
"Teaching was his calling," Mrs. Singer said. "Rob was meant to be a teacher. He was so passionate about his work and helped his students think on a whole different level. In the short 4½ years he was with us, he touched so many lives."
Patrick Donegan won the first Potter scholarship when it was presented in June 2011. The award has quickly become one of the most prestigious any senior can win.