Fall River vocational school pulls out all the stops to host Kennedy’s speech
FALL RIVER — It was a historic evening at Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School, and they wanted to show it.
Culinary arts students sliced baguettes for crostini to be topped with maple duck breast and cranberry marmalade. Girls holding scissors huddled around a table to make decorative paper roses from orange construction paper — the school’s color.
On Tuesday, in the automotive technology shop, students dressed in dark uniforms took the day off from working on cars because the cavernous space was being prepared.
US Representative Joseph Kennedy III, who would deliver the Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union address, didn’t even step onto the school grounds until after classes let out. But at every turn, students and teachers were intent on making sure the most high-profile event in the school’s 106-year history went smoothly.
“I couldn’t be more proud to host this event,” said Elvio Ferreira, who is in his second year as principal of the school, which educates about 1,400 students from Fall River, Westport, Swansea, and Somerset. The school trains future electricians, carpenters, dental assistants, and other professionals.
“It’s a tremendous honor,” Ferreira said.
At about 4 p.m., Kennedy walked into the lobby, where reporters had gathered for a preview of his address to the country. He recalled a previous visit to the school during which a plumbing instructor told him that graduates have the potential to earn $75,000 annually in the trade. Such a salary is transformative in a city like Fall River, where the median household income is about $34,000 annually, Kennedy said.
“That’s a pretty extraordinary catalyst, not just for economic growth, but for economic stability,” he said.
Preparations for the speech began late last week, school officials said, when they got word that Kennedy wanted to deliver the address at their school. John Chicharro, 58, who runs the automotive technology shop, said he was stunned.
“We couldn’t get the shop cleaned fast enough,” said Chicharro, an immigrant from the Azores and a Diman graduate. “We went into a maintenance, an extreme maintenance mode.”
Since Monday, the shop, which is run like an automotive service garage, got a deep-cleaning as students and staff emptied the space of cars, used a power washer to scrub the cement floor, and rearranged furniture.
“This is really a treat for us,” Chicharro said.
The final hours of preparation were the most frenzied, school officials said. Custodians and facilities staff reported to Diman at 3 a.m. — even earlier than planned, Ferreira said — thanks to the late January snowstorm. School was delayed for one hour as crews plowed and shoveled, he said.
An electronic sign board at the school’s entrance displayed a message welcoming Kennedy. A separate message read “Go Pats!”
Catreena Perry, 17, and Hayley Goncalo, 16, both culinary arts students, said they started their day in the school’s industrial kitchen by preparing a cheese plate, fruit platter, and other dishes to be served to about 175 guests in the school’s cafeteria.
Attention to detail — from uniformly cutting each piece of cheese to arranging fruit slices with precision — was paramount.
“We want to make sure that it looks good,” said Perry, a senior from Westport. “We want to make sure we go the extra mile.”
Hope Durot, 16, a junior from Westport, was among students invited to be in the audience for Kennedy’s address.
“I just think being a part of this is history in the making,” said Durot, who is enrolled in the electricity program. “I’ve never experienced something like this before, and it’s huge.”
Kevin Lazaro, Diman’s director of cooperative education, got to tell Durot and other students they would have a seat at Kennedy’s address.
“We’re a community school that prides itself on blue-collar workers,” Lazaro said. “It’s really good to finally shed a light on what we’re doing down here.”
Kennedy Gomes, 16, a junior who was born in Portugal, was among the students who listened to Kennedy’s news conference in the lobby. Kennedy, who said he was named after President John F. Kennedy, was waiting for his aunt to pick him up from school. His mother, who is Cape Verdean, named him, he said, because he thought the former president “was a great man.”
After the congressman finished speaking with reporters, he shook hands with the boy named for his great uncle.
Gomes said he was going to try to stay up to watch Kennedy’s speech.
“I got to see him in person,” Gomes said. “It really spoke to me.”