Fourth-grade students at Miller Elementary unveiled a new playground bench Friday afternoon during a dedication ceremony honoring the life of Jerry MacNeal.

MacNeal, who volunteered in Marilyn Jackson's fourth-grade classroom, died in June after 11 years of service.

Students gathered on the playground to unveil the "Buddy Bench," a place to go when they "want to connect with an old friend or a new friend" or to walk, talk or play together.

"I've always known he was a great guy," said MacNeal's son Phil, "but I hear the stories about what he did, how he taught and how he helped. He used to come home after doing that with you, and he used to tell us what a good time he had."

As a volunteer, Jerry McNeal, affectionately referred to as "Mr. Jerry," became friends with many of the fourth-grade students and occasionally chaperoned their field trips. He worked with small groups of students to help develop their math skills and sometimes worked with others who were learning English.

"Mr. Jerry was a friend to our Miller School students," Jackson said. "He enjoyed spending his retirement days with our students. The Buddy Bench is a simple idea in his memory to eliminate loneliness and foster friendship on the playground. We want to spread the message of inclusion and kindness, just like Mr. Jerry did."

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Friday's dedication included a poem, song and special reading by the students, and featured Goldfish crackers — MacNeal's favorite snack — for the kids to eat. Jackson said MacNeal frequently brought the fish-shaped crackers to share with students at recess, and used the time to get to know students individually.

"The Buddy Bench is a wonderful representation of what Mr. Jerry wanted for our students: friendship and kindness," she said.

The bench was purchased with funds from the school's Jog-a-Thon, which was held in September.

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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