The Valley Dispatch
CHELMSFORD — Joe Middlemiss and William Manganis were inseparable, the best of friends.
They met at Tyngsboro Elementary School as kindergartners and bonded over a love of superheroes — especially Spiderman.
“We would always sit next to each other and then we’d be talking and we wouldn’t eat any lunch,” said William, 7. “We had to be separated.”
Though Joe is no longer living, William still considers him to be his best bud, telling him jokes and writing letters to him, telling him he misses him and asking if he has found Jesus.
Their beautiful friendship will soon be memorialized for all to see at South Row Elementary School, where William is a second-grader, thanks to his own efforts and those of the Joseph Middlemiss Big Heart Foundation to bring a “Buddy Bench” to the school.
Over the summer, William began selling “Kindness Rocks for Joey” at the Chelmsford Farmers Market, and so far he’s raised more than $1,600 for the foundation.
Joe was a happy and funny kid, who loved music, especially the Beatles, and playing the drums, said his father, Scott Middlemiss, of Dracut.
“Even though he was 6, he taught us a lot about how to live and enjoy life,” Middlemiss said. “Every night he’d go to bed saying, ‘This was the best day ever,’ and would tell us why.”
Despite being born with cardiomyopathy, or an enlarged heart, Joe grew to be a typical boy, Middlemiss said, and William and his other friends never treated him any differently.
Following Joe’s death on Sept. 23, 2013, Middlemiss and his wife, Kate, honored their son by doing random acts of kindness in his name. Their efforts eventually grew into the foundation, which now seeks to spread the power of kindness, empower children and raise funds to support other families touched by childhood heart conditions.
The idea of the Buddy Bench originated with Pennsylvania second-grader Christian Bucks, and has spread all over the nation. When William heard about it, he thought it was the perfect thing to bring to his school, to both honor his best buddy and to help his classmates find new buddies, too.
“If anyone’s lonely, they sit on it, and then somebody comes,” he said.
William collected his first rocks at Red River Beach on Cape Cod, and now relatives and friends are helping him stay supplied. He designs and paints the rocks, adorning each with hearts. He charges $3 each for them, because three was Joe’s lucky number. His goal now is to reach $10,000.
“I’m very proud of him,” said William’s mother, Christie Manganis. “He’s taught me so much about friendship and love and kindness, just as Joe has and continues to do, and really that friendship lasts beyond what we know.”
While the circumstances surrounding the loss of their children are very different, Middlemiss said he has often looked to the parents of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy for strength, particularly those who have gone on to honor their children by promoting the good that can come out of such horror.
Middlemiss also nominated William for this year’s Charlotte Bacon Acts of Kindness Awards, named after one of the children whose lives were tragically cut short, and found out last week William will be honored for his actions at the next awards ceremony on Feb. 21 in Newtown.
South Row Principal Molly McMahon said William is a perfect example of the power of friendship and kindness that other students can learn from.
“It’s pretty incredible,” she said. “I don’t think that most kids realize the impact that they can have, especially how far kindness can reach and how much that can make difference.”
McMahon said the school also has plans for a kindness challenge week and creating a kindness rock garden all students can contribute to.
The Buddy Bench will make its official debut at South Row on the last Monday of February, when Kate Middlemiss will come to do kindness presentations at the school.
The bench will be installed in the playground during the first week in April, and will feature a stone plaque with an etched image of “the original buddies” dressed in some of their favorite super hero costumes. Some of William’s kindness rocks will also be set in the cement around it.
While the foundation has donated several Buddy Benches to area schools, including some in Tyngsboro, Dracut and Groton, this one “is the most special of them all,” Scott Middlemiss said.
“It’s at his best friend’s school, and his best friend is responsible for bringing it to his school, and I think that means a lot,” he said. “It would probably make Joe the most happy.”