The man in the business suit and the young boy in the crisp Catholic school uniform had never met. But before the morning was over, they would be locked in a quiet embrace, drawn together by the profound grief that staggers sons who’ve lost their fathers.
Amid the celebrities and celebration at the rededication of the Dorchester Lower Mills campus of Saint John Paul II Catholic Academy, it was a private moment, beyond the reach of photographers who chronicled the ceremonies attended by Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley.
The exchange last week lasted barely a few minutes. But Jack Sebastian, a Goldman Sachs executive who helped raise millions to rebuild the school, and Devin Allen, a 9-year-old straight-A student at the reborn academy, won’t soon forget it.
“I got a little emotional,’’ Sebastian said. “My dad died in August and we were super close.’’
“I felt sad and I just wanted to say something to cheer him up,’’ Devin, a fourth-grader, told me this week when I visited him at his school.
Here’s what happened:
As Sebastian stood at the lectern during the gala rededication event and looked into the faces of the teachers and the school kids, his thoughts drifted to his father, the son of an immigrant from Italy, the man who settled his family in Framingham but never graduated high school.
Gene Sebastian worked six, sometimes seven, days a week at his family’s business, Waban Shoe Repair. “Everything he did was for us to get a better education,’’ Jack Sebastian told me. “No one in his family had gone to college.’’
And now the name of his father and mother adorned the freshly sparkling school’s cafeteria.
“It brought back the freshness of my dad’s passing,’’ Sebastian said of his father. “I got emotional because we were super close. I paused to compose myself, but I was crying.’’
From his seat just a few feet away, Devin noticed. And, perhaps more than anyone else in the room, he knew what to do. That man needs a hug, he thought.
You see, Devin was super close to his dad, too.
Hilton Allen was 54 when he died of a brain tumor just four days before the event at the school. As his son sat there, listening to Sebastian, his thoughts drifted, too. Back to the father who loved corny jokes, the stock market, monster trucks and — above all — back to the man he would cling to when he came home from work as a senior project technician at MIT’s Lincoln Lab.
“They had a special bond,’’ Devin’s mother, Herica Allen, told me. “He was always kissing and hugging his father.’’
When Sebastian wrapped up his remarks and the applause died down, Devin Allen reached out to the man at the lectern, and then, through the intercession of a teacher, Jack Sebastian and Devin Allen found themselves in a school hallway.
“I felt so sad for him and I just wanted to say something to cheer him up,’’ Devin recalled. “I told him, ‘That’s OK. My dad died, too.’
“And he said, ‘You’re in my prayers.’ And I said, ‘Thank you. You’re in my prayers, too.’ ‘’
Devin said that until Jack Sebastian’s emotional speech that morning, he had kept an overwhelming sense of loss bottled up inside of him. “I didn’t really know how to show it,’’ he said.
What Sebastian taught him that morning was that it’s OK to be sad. When you lose a father, he learned, it’s OK to cry. Whether you’re a young boy in grammar school or a grown man in a tall office building in the financial district, it’s hard not to. In fact, sometimes it’s impossible.
“I couldn’t believe how strong he was,’’ Sebastian said. “I couldn’t believe he was in school, because he had just lost his dad. He was a real inspiration for me. He was just so strong. I was just taken by how well composed he was.’’
Devin Allen kept that composure the day after he met Jack Sebastian, the morning of his father’s funeral at Bethel Tabernacle Pentecostal Church in Dorchester.
The young boy told poignant stories about the man he’d awake in the morning by shining a flashlight in his eyes, the dad who told him to act like a sponge in school and soak up all that knowledge.
It’s a lesson two grateful sons learned from their greatest teachers.Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.