Kimmie's right-hand man

"Dear Mr. Jim O'Toole," the letter begins, "thank you very much for shooting Kimmie Meissner at your school."

O'Toole, a teacher at Fallston High School, throws back his head and laughs. The letter, from a Japanese television crew that videotaped Meissner for a sports show, is just one of the hundreds he sees every month as the unofficial press secretary for the world and national figure skating champion.

"He's become the seventh Meissner," jokes the skater, a senior at the school. "He's joined the family."

No high school can prepare for the day that one of its students hits the big time. Fans who may not know the athlete's home address have no trouble looking up a school address and e-mail.

Since Meissner rocketed to the top of figure skating a year ago, Fallston has been buried in requests for autographs, appearances, interviews, ribbon cuttings and items for fund-raising auctions. They all find their way to the tiny, windowless office of O'Toole, the director of student activities.

"This is Kimmie's world here," he says, throwing the door open. One part of a credenza is filled with letters answered and those awaiting the skater's attention. Another part holds autographed photos and "Cool Kids" bracelets Meissner designed to help raise money for pediatric cancer patients at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Though she might not do a ton of grand openings, she almost always makes time for nonprofit groups.

"She realizes she has a gift and it's her duty to use it to benefit others," O'Toole says.

When she's not on the road, Meissner stops in to sign mementos and work on letters. O'Toole speeds the process by highlighting a letter's major points and offering suggested responses. She gets asked a lot about boyfriends.

"I always say I have friends who are boys. I never really answer it," she says, and then skillfully ducks the question again.

Teacher and student print the replies on simple letterhead with her name and a pair of figure skates dangling from the end. Each one is signed, "Gratefully yours."

"He's a godsend," says Judy Meissner, the skater's mother. "He's a teacher who goes that extra step, and it's not just with Kimmie, it's with all the kids."

Principal Kevin Fleming, who was a rookie teacher with O'Toole at Bel Air High 32 years ago, concurs.

"He's unbelievable. If he'd let us nominate him, he'd be Maryland Teacher of the Year," Fleming says. "But he won't take the spotlight."

Last year, yearbook staff members decided to take matters into their own hands and dedicated the book to him.

O'Toole has been at Fallston since 1980, the year of the first graduating class. An English and journalism teacher, he directed The Print, the school newspaper, for more than two decades and most recently became the teacher of the cooperative work experience program.

When Meissner arrived at the school as an up-and-coming figure skater who sometimes traveled to competitions, O'Toole helped her arrange her schedule and the occasional request from a fan.

But last year, the floodgates opened when, in the span of three months, Meissner finished second at the U.S. championships, went to her first Olympics and won the world title. Suddenly, everyone wanted something.

"It was an overwhelming time for us," recalls Judy Meissner. "He kept assuring us, 'Don't worry, we'll get it done.' He went way beyond what he needed to do."

Kimmie Meissner says it was O'Toole's enthusiasm and calm approach that got her through the first few months.

"I got a million letters," she says. "I'd take half home and Mr. O'Toole would take half home and then we'd swap, trying to read them all and answer them. He seriously picked it up last year."

O'Toole says the Meissners did, too.

"I'm always amazed. They always seriously consider every event. They can't get to all of them, but nothing is ever brushed away," he says.

Because of her hectic schedule, Meissner doesn't have much time for school activities. The one exception is doing the morning announcements, supervised - naturally - by O'Toole. Just before departing for the World Championships, Meissner joined fellow seniors Brittany Geraghty and Joseph Howard early one morning in a room lined with file cabinets to edit and practice their spiels about sports practices, lunch menus and other matters.

It's not easy to coax a smile from Meissner, but O'Toole can.

"He always tells a joke. They're always terrible, but he laughs at them and then I do, too," she says, shaking her head.

In about six weeks, Meissner and her fellow announcers will gather for their final turn behind the mike. Tradition dictates that they sign off with, "Go Seniors," for the next senior class.

Meissner realizes that signing off will mean the curtailment of a special relationship.

"I'm going to have to visit," she says. "I'm going to need my Mr. O'Toole days."


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