Chinese-American man honors ex-principal for welcoming him to Fairfield

Ting Wang with second-grade classmates at Washington Elementary School in 1989. (Photo courtesy of Ting Wang)
Ting Wang with second-grade classmates at Washington Elementary School in 1989. (Photo courtesy of Ting Wang)

FAIRFIELD – A Chinese-American man who went to school in Fairfield says he owes his early success in the country to former Washington Elementary School Principal Dwain Dooley.

Ting Wang was born in China and came with his parents to Fairfield as a second grader in 1988. He credits Dooley with making him feel welcome in his new country. Ting went on to attend Harvard and later Yale Law School and today is a corporate attorney based in Beijing and Shanghai.

When Dooley died last August at age 89, Ting’s former elementary teacher Jane Rowe wrote to inform him of the death. Since Dooley played such a critical role in helping him acclimate to the United States, Ting penned a nearly 1,800-word eulogy honoring his former principal and shared it with his acquaintances in Fairfield.

In the eulogy, Ting recounts adjusting to life in America. He and his family came to Fairfield so that his father could study at Maharishi International University.

Ting was not at all thrilled with his new surroundings. He was a class leader back home in Beijing, where his artwork had won awards and landed him on national television. Now he was forced to learn a new language and make new friends and do it in the middle of the school year when “everyone else had friends but me.”

When Ting arrived at Washington Elementary School, he remembers how Dooley introduced him to his classmates. At the time, Ting had no idea what Dooley was saying since he did not understand English, but Dooley’s demeanor said it all. He carried himself with “gravitas,” Ting recalls, and standing under the American flag, he “appeared like the president of the United States.”

The principal spoke to the class in a firm but calm voice.

“I could sense from the gentle tone of his voice that he was telling my new classmates to welcome this boy who had come from a distant land, who might look different to them but was just as good a person as any of them, so they should treat me like one of their own,” Ting wrote.

Dooley’s speech must have had an effect on the students, who thereafter competed with one another to be nice to Ting. They lent their crayons to him, praised the pictures he drew, opened his milk carton, showed him how to use the soap dispenser in the bathroom, how to climb the monkey bars and how to play tetherball at recess.

Ting, in turn, taught them how to say words in Chinese. At the end of his first day, Ting felt such joy, and realized that coming to America wasn’t so bad after all.

“I thought, ‘If they all learned Chinese, I wouldn’t have to learn English,’” Ting wrote.

Ting’s newfound optimism was short-lived. After a few days of driving him to school, Ting’s father decided his son could ride the school bus home. The bus dropped the students off at Fairfield High School, where Ting’s classmates transferred to other buses or went straight home.

Ting was left alone to fend for himself. He knew his address was 207 North C St., but didn’t know the difference between north and south. He took one wrong turn and got lost. To make matters worse, he never bothered to learn how to say his address in English, so the friendly strangers he encountered on his walk couldn’t understand him.

After hours of going the wrong way, cutting through backyards, being chased by dogs and bitten by bugs, Ting was walking along Burlington Avenue when an elderly couple saw that he was really struggling and invited him in.

They placed a phone call, and a few minutes later a car pulled up. It was Mr. Dooley, who had been working late at the school. Ting couldn’t believe the principal was driving him home.

Years later, Ting told his grandmother that story. She had been a high school principal in China. She told him, “Wow, that’s an incredible principal.”

She said it would be unheard of in China for a principal, high in the school’s hierarchy, to run such an errand.

The rest of that school year was tough for Ting. His English had not improved by the following fall, so he had to repeat second grade. He recalls that he avoided seeing Dooley because he felt he had disappointed him.

Ting was taking math classes with third-graders but language arts with first-graders. He recalled one incident where a teacher arranged for the two smartest students in the class to teach him spelling. They spent half an hour enunciating the word “stop,” gesturing with their hands and drawing octagons, but Ting still couldn’t get it.

“We just stared at each other with puzzled looks on our faces,” he said.

After his second year in Fairfield, English was getting easier for Ting. Now ready to enter third grade, Ting had Jane Rowe for a teacher, who had a writing-intensive curriculum. Ting excelled at it and particularly enjoyed writing letters to authors of books he read.

He helped arrange a pen pal program with third-graders in Huai’an, China.

Ting loved creative writing, too, and one of his stories won first place in a writing competition sponsored by the International Reading Association. He, Rowe, his parents and Dooley were invited to attend the awards ceremony in Douds.

“Mr. Dooley introduced me and remarked on how far I had come in my two years at Washington Elementary,” Ting wrote. “I felt especially happy to have made Mr. Dooley proud.”

Ting progressed so much in third grade that Dooley agreed to allow him to skip fourth grade and go straight to fifth grade. But that wouldn’t be at Washington Elementary School.

Ting’s parents had moved north of the railroad tracks, putting them in the zone of Lincoln Elementary School. Ting was not looking forward to transferring schools, but Dooley assured him and his parents that Lincoln was a fine school, and that Dooley’s wife, Jane, taught there.

“This time, I felt unafraid of being the new kid at the school,” Ting wrote. “Mr. Dooley and Washington Elementary had given me all the confidence I needed to take on Lincoln, and of every school thereafter from the Fairfield Middle School and Forest Hills High School [in New York] to Harvard College and Yale Law School.”

Today, Ting works for the international law firm Paul Hastings LLP and spends most of his time in either Beijing or Shanghai, China. Ting came back to the United States for a visit during Chinese New Year in late January and has been stuck in the country ever since travel restrictions prevented him from returning to China.

When Ting learned of Dooley’s death, he felt he owed a debt to his former principal, and put his memories of the man into a fitting eulogy. Ting said the character and caliber of the people are the things he loves most about Iowa, and no one better embodied those Iowa traits than Dwain Dooley.

He remained in contact with Rowe via email. Rowe said she was touched to read Ting’s eulogy for his former principal.

“It’s a wonderful story about somebody who appreciated what Dwain did for him,” she said. “Dwain had that ability with everybody. He was just a wonderful man.”