Francis X. Sweeney, the Unknown Icon


Jeff Chin

Above the fieldhouse, there is a portrait of a man resembling Albert Einstein. To many Waterford alumni, he was a legend, a founder of the Waterford family. Nowadays, he is passed by Waterford students, unaware of his impact on our school. 

Francis X. Sweeney was the first athletic director of Waterford High School. As soon as he graduated high school, Mr. Sweeney worked as a U.S. Navy Armed Guard gunner in World War II and was formally discharged in 1946. After the war, he attended Springfield College before being hired by the Waterford school system in 1951.

He was a catalyst for our athletic department. He is responsible for the development of athletics at WHS. When Mr. Sweeney was hired by the Waterford school system, he moved around the four elementary schools at the time as a PE teacher, he also taught math, science, and health during his time at WHS. In 1956 when Waterford High School first opened, he became the athletic director.

He, however, wasn’t just a part of Waterford’s athletic history. He was also a huge personality, getting along extremely well with the other staff at the time. One of our previous assistant principals, Gene Ryan, who had Mr. Sweeney as a teacher when he attended WHS, said, “He was a little guy that seemed big, he knew every student’s name, and was extremely witty and funny. You would always see him around town and he wouldn’t hesitate to greet you whenever he saw you.” He stressed the balance between coaching and parenting, hoping to be a good mentor for his students. In a 2011 interview with The Day, Mr. Sweeney said, “My father always ignored me, never had anything to do with me,” Sweeney said. “I told myself I was never going to be like that, I was going to love everybody.” 

When talking about his favorite memory of Mr. Sweeney, Gene Ryan said, “During my senior year, we started a football game with a successful on-side kick. Coach Cipriani was surprised and furious with the kicker. ‘What the hell are you doing!?’ ‘Mr. Sweeney told me to.’”

Another Waterford staff member, Colleen Lineburgh, who personally knew Mr. Sweeney, said, “My daughter Meaghan worked with Mr. Sweeney for a number of years at the high school pool as a lifeguard. He would walk through the school in the early morning looking for her in class if he needed help at the pool. A number of teachers at the time knew who he was and didn’t mind the interruption of class. He often would add to the class discussion.”

Even after Mr. Sweeney retired in 1979, he was still an important aspect of our school, joining Waterford Parks and Recreation, as well as the Board of Education. He continued to coach sports at Connecticut College and officiated WHS softball games and swimming and diving meets. In addition to all of this, he was also a Red Cross instructor. One of his most notable contributions after his retirement was his nursing degree, which he earned in 1985 from Garfield College and Bridgeport University School. His nursing career included time at the Yale-New Haven Hospital, L&M Hospital, Backus Hospital, and the Pan Am Games in 1987. It was there where he picked up the nickname “Doc Sweeney.”

After Doc Sweeney passed in 2012, efforts arose to continue his legacy. Many Waterford students and alumni wanted to rename the turf field after Mr. Sweeney, however, that effort did not work because there was a policy barring attaching people’s names to school locations. This policy was in place because naming locations after one person could cause others to feel slighted, and the district did not want that. However, in 2013, efforts emerged to rename the fieldhouse after Doc Sweeney. After lots of conversations between the members of the Board of Education at the time, they agreed that no one else had the same profound effect on our athletics department as Doc Sweeney. And in 2013, the fieldhouse was officially renamed the “Francis X. Sweeney Fieldhouse.”

The effects that Francis X. Sweeney’s had on our school are evident, even after his retirement, and will continue to shape the future of our school. From Mr. Little, the next PE teacher after his retirement to Mr. Landry, our current athletic director, and future athletic directors as well. Mrs. Lineburgh said, “Mr. Sweeney was a mentor for him (Mr. Little) when he first started teaching and Mr. Little and I would go and visit him near the end of his life.” Mr. Sweeney had a great influence on Mr. Little, who was Mr. Nolda’s favorite teacher. From 1956 to 2023, Mr. Sweeney has continued to have an impact on our P.E. program.

So next time you pass the fieldhouse and his mural above the door, think of the legacy that he has left behind in our school.