Photo by Marcy Stamper In a skit showing how the bench might be used, fifth-grader Lucinda Tobiska, feeling excluded from a ball game, sits on the bench as classmate Rhain Hagan comes by to chat.

Photo by Marcy Stamper

In a skit showing how the bench might be used, fifth-grader Lucinda Tobiska, feeling excluded from a ball game, sits on the bench as classmate Rhain Hagan comes by to chat.

Student project commemorates beloved Liberty Bell grad

By Marcy Stamper

A cozy friendship bench, its two seats angled toward each other to encourage conversation, was unveiled at the elementary school concert assembly on Thursday (June 2).

The bench, a collaborative project between Methow Valley Elementary School fifth-graders and the Liberty Bell High School welding class, started when the fifth-graders wanted a way to honor Tom Zbyszewski, who died along with two colleagues fighting the Twisp River Fire last summer.

The students wanted a way to remember Zbyszewski, whom many of them knew as an actor, a lifeguard at the Twisp pool, and as a friend and neighbor. Zbyszewski graduated from Liberty Bell in 2013.

Fifth-grade teachers Jennifer Duguay and Catie Barber initially thought about commissioning a local artist to make the bench, but welding teacher Trent Whatley thought it would be a good project for his more-advanced students.

Photo by Darla Hussey Welding teacher Trent Whatley, left, and senior Gavin Wengerd work on the friendship bench, which has two seats angled to encourage conversation.

Photo by Darla Hussey

Welding teacher Trent Whatley, left, and senior Gavin Wengerd work on the friendship bench, which has two seats angled to encourage conversation.

The students and teachers combined ideas to come up with symbols to reflect Zbyszewski’s passions and intellectual accomplishments. The arms of the bench feature a U.S. Forest Service logo that conveys Zbyszewski’s commitment to firefighting and the equation e = mc2 for his curiosity about science. The backrest is adorned with the double masks for tragedy and comedy and the Chinese character for “friendship.”

At the unveiling, Tom’s mother, Jennifer Zbyszewski, told students that Tom wouldn’t want people to feel sad when they remember him. “He was kind, happy, and loved to try new things,” she said.

The fifth-graders explained why they wanted to create the bench. “He lived a great and extraordinary life,” one told the assembly. “He died saving our valley.” As another put it, “He was amazing.” 

The students consulted Zbyszewski’s parents about the design and the plaque that will be mounted between the seats. “They wanted it to be about kids at school, not about Tommy,” said one student.

While the fifth-graders initiated the idea, the bench would never have taken shape — literally — without the design skills and craftsmanship of the high school welding class, many of whom knew Zbyszewski quite well. Sophomore Carlee Wright, who helped design the bench, said she practiced tae kwon do with Zbyszewski.

The students suggested angling the seats toward other to make it a natural place to sit and talk to someone, said senior Josh Johnson.

Designing and building the form was challenging because they had to make sure it would be strong enough, said Wright. Wright and Johnson used a plasma torch to cut out the math equation and the Forest Service logo, which were later welded onto the bench and smoothed with a grinder.

Senior Trevor Surface did most of the work on the basic form of the bench, building the chair and bending the legs and seat to match. Sophomore Quinn Whites helped cut out the metal for the bench.

“I had a pretty rough, rudimentary sketch,” said Surface. Although he had done similar projects, the bench required considerable adjustment so it would be comfortable for sitting.

Figuring out how to gently curve the circle for the Chinese character and weld it onto the seat back — and have it all come out smooth — was one of the most challenging parts, said senior Gavin Wengerd, who did much of the cutting and welding. “It was hard to piece it together, but it came together well,” he said.

Once the metalwork was done, the bench was powder-coated with the school green. Whatley plans to highlight some of the symbols in yellow.

The construction of the bench wasn’t overly complicated, said Whatley. What was really difficult was finding a way to represent someone’s life, he said.

At the assembly, the fifth-graders performed a short skit showing how they imagine the bench could be used. A girl who felt left out because she couldn’t participate in a ball game retreated to the bench, where she was joined by a friend.

The bench will be installed in the elementary playground (which is itself being redesigned) once the plastic panel, which will include Zbyszewski’s photo and the following inscription, has  been finished.

Tommy’s Bench

Sit here if you feel lonely

or need a friend.

In memory of Thomas Zbyszewski

who loved this school, this valley

and the people here.

September 17, 1994 —
August 19, 2015