Al Buttimer, the principal at Westview Elementary School in Wood Dale, got his second biggest surprise of the year on Friday.
The biggest came during a pickup basketball game in July when he saved the life of another player by performing CPR after the man’s heart had stopped. The second came Friday morning in Westview’s gym when that man secretly arranged a visit to thank him in front of the school’s students and staff.
“He got me,” Buttimer said with a big smile after Sam Ally told the kids about their principal’s heroic actions that saved his life. “I’m shaking.”
The surprise visit came under the guise of a school assembly to wrap up a week focusing on kindness. Kids wore ties to the “kindness ties us together” assembly, and the program included eight children in the front holding up the letters that spelled out “kindness.” Each letter represented a word describing an act of kindness.
The final “s” was for saving someone’s life. That’s when teacher Melissa Serrano told the kids their principal had saved someone. She also said “s” is for “surprise” and asked Buttimer to come to the front as the kids cheered.
Buttimer looked to the back of the gym to see Ally, the other basketball players from that night and Buttimer’s family.
Ally, who is from Oak Lawn, told the kids about how he collapsed on the floor and his heart stopped.
“If he didn’t jump into action as fast as he did, I wouldn’t be here,” Ally said of Buttimer, telling the kids. “For the rest of my life, he’s gonna be my best friend.”
On July 17, Buttimer and Ally were among a group playing basketball at Oak Lawn Community High School. The two men had known each other for about a year after playing together a few nights a week.
Ally, who said he’s a “reasonably healthy” 64-year-old with no history of any heart issues, was feeling a little more winded than usual. After taking a short break during the game, he went back out on the court. He doesn’t remember anything after that.
Fortunately, Buttimer wrote down what happened when he got home and later shared the drama with Ally.
The players rushed over after noticing Ally was down at midcourt. They got him up and put him in a chair. But he got progressively worse, and they laid him back down. Soon, they couldn’t find a pulse.
Buttimer, who just two weeks before had undergone refresher training in CPR, started chest compressions while the others called emergency services and found an AED machine in the gym. Buttimer gave Ally two jolts from the machine before paramedics and police arrived and took over.
Ally woke up in the hospital the next morning. Doctors told him scar tissue, probably from a long-ago case of pneumonia, had stopped the electrical impulses in his heart. They said they had no idea how he was still alive.
“I’ll be thanking Al every day for the rest of my life,” Ally said.
He said thinking of a way to honor the man who saved him kept him up at night. He contacted Wood Dale School District 7 Superintendent John Corbett, who then worked with a small handful of teachers and staff to pull off the surprise.
Buttimer told the kids during the assembly that all he did was follow the lessons they were learning.
“The first part of an act of kindness is recognizing the opportunity, recognizing somebody else’s need and not being a bystander, but being an upstander,” he said. “I think we all did that once we saw our friend Sam was in need.”
Ally gave Buttimer a pocket watch with an inscription on the outside that read, “Life teaches us the use of time. Time teaches us the value of life.” The message from Ally inside the watch said, “Thanks for refilling my hourglass, Al. 7-17-23.”
For his part, Buttimer said he hasn’t “felt heroic in any way.”
“There was no direct confidence that what we were doing was the right thing or going to work,” Buttimer said. “But it was a matter of doing something, taking action in some way. And it worked.”