Joseph Sweeny: His members were foremost on his mind


From a gurney in the emergency room at Buffalo General Hospital on May 6, Joe Sweeny wanted to make sure his longtime companion Mary Ellen Decker did not forget … the NYSUT tickets to a May 9th fundraiser for John Plumb.

“I asked him if he knew where he was, and he said he knew he was in the damn hospital, but he wanted to make sure that someone from NYSUT was at Plumb’s fundraiser. He was passionate about getting John elected to Congress to give our region a stronger voice.

“Then he started worrying about the speech he was supposed to give at Worker’s Memorial Day (on May 7 at Reservoir State Park.) When I told him I didn’t think the doctors would let him go, as bossy as ever, he told me that I would have to give the speech then,” she recalled.

If Decker felt she could have left Joe’s side, she would have given that speech.

Joseph E. Sweeny, NYSUT Board member, former Dunkirk TA president and a social studies teacher for 38 years, died Sunday morning at Buffalo General Hospital from complications caused by an incurable brain tumor.

“NYSUT and the labor movement have lost a fierce advocate, a persuasive voice and a loyal friend,” NYSUT President Karen E. Magee. “Joe will be missed by many.”

Funeral arrangements are incomplete until all family members can be contacted. But honoring Joe has already started.

“I was on the phone with Rick (Gallant, a fellow NYSUT Board member) and we knew folks would want to do something for Joe and we both instantly knew what Joe would want more than anything would be for folks to register people to vote and, specifically, for the Democratic Party,” Decker said.

Nancy Baker, Dunkirk TA’s current president, laughed when she heard of that request to register people as Democrats.

“Joe built a legacy of reaching out to help others and by motivating people to go the extra mile,” Baker said.

Gallant agreed.

“He was tireless,” Gallant said, recalling he first met Sweeny at a NYSUT contiguous Election District meeting after he became elected president of the Corning TA. Sweeny represented ED 4, a huge geographic region that stretches from Salamanca past Olean while Gallant served as an at large director for both ED 4 and 46.

“My first thought was ‘doggone this guy is passionate about worker rights and teachers.’ My second thought was ‘doggone, he talks forever!’ Gallant said, laughing.

That ability to talk and to press the case of members he represented started as a young social studies teacher, recalled Anthony Bifaro, who first met Sweeny at a Chautauqua County local leaders meeting.

“I was president of the Brocton TA and Joe was an officer of the Dunkirk TA. Many locals were just beginning to understand the Taylor Law and there were demonstrations or picket lines several nights a week as a means of getting the message across to the public and getting our members engaged,” Bifaro said.

“People followed Joe’s lead so he would bring along many people with him to those demonstrations. Joe believed in the core mission of unionism – his members were foremost on his mind — and it didn’t stop with NYSUT. He was a fierce advocate for all unions, active in the area labor council and became recognized for his advocacy, knowledge and activism.”

Sweeny replaced Bifaro as ED 4 director when Bifaro went to Albany to work for NYSUT.

Indeed, Sweeny cut his union teeth very early in his teaching career. According to Decker, he liked to tell the story of his early interest in union activism to emphasize the importance of unionism and of contributing to Vote/Cope:

“Joe’s very first general membership meeting was the ratification of the contract. Among the terms agreed to was the end of district-paid health insurance for retirees in exchange for a $500 raise. Even as a new teacher, he realized the consequences that would hold. The contract was ratified and Joe was determined that he would become involved rather than see something like that happen again.”

Adam Kauffman of the New York State Public Employment Relations Board spent a lot of time in Dunkirk, working with Sweeny as local president, dealing with mediation and conciliation issues.

“Joe was bright and he could be stubborn,” Kauffman recalled. “He cared not only about the teachers he represented but the children in the Dunkirk schools. This is not a cliche.”

If there was another institution Sweeny was dedicated to, it was the Democratic Party. Joe often told the story about going to hear then Sen. John F. Kennedy speak the year he would turn 13.

“To hear him tell it, he came home from that speech energized with the Democratic Party,” Decker said. Too young to vote, that was the first of a long list of politicians Sweeny would support. His favorites included working on Stanley Lundine’s 1976 campaign to the U.S. House of Representatives, William Parment’s 1983 election to the New York State Assembly, Anthony Dolce’s 2013 election as mayor of Dunkirk and the 2015 campaign of Dr. Athanasia Landis as mayor of Fredonia.

“They were all special. Perhaps AJ’s race as mayor of Dunkirk sticks out a little just because Joe was really proud to support one of his students,” Decker said.

Sweeny served many roles in the Democratic Party. A past chairman of the Dunkirk Democratic Committee, he chaired the Fredonia-Pomfret Democrat Association.

Bifaro said Sweeny saw the natural connection between teaching and all public service careers, unionism and the Democratic Party.

“He always sought better working conditions and protecting workers rights,” Bifaro said.

“Always” meant “always,” unless severe weather kept him from an event, which happened this January.

“He left for a rally in Olean on Martin Luther King Day and it was a full-out blizzard,” Decker said. “Fifteen minutes later, he couldn’t go any farther. That and the other meetings he ever missed as a NYSUT Board member can be counted on one hand.”

Sweeny was an active member of numerous committees, organizations and delegations that took him from one end of the state to the other. Thomas Y. Hobart Jr., NYSUT’s first president, recalled the distances Joe would travel.

“I remember because when Joe was first elected the district went all the way to Corning and there was no direct route from Dunkirk to Corning, and there was no Route 86,” Hobart said.

Sweeny mentored many. Dunkirk President Baker came upon a quote by Albert Schweitzer, she thought summed up Joe perfectly: “One thing I know, the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”

“That was Joe,” Baker said. “He always gave much more than he expected in return, leading by serving. Joe loved to get young and old, experienced and inexperienced, in the same room to get different takes on the same issue or problem. Then he gently influenced everyone by building them up and helping them come to their own conclusions. We agreed that we could disagree, even though I realized very early on that he was probably right. I never got less than the best from Joe and, for this, I will be eternally grateful to him.”

In addition to honoring Sweeny’s lifelong passion of advancing the interests of working families and the trade union movement by registering 20 people for the Democratic Party, contributions in Joe’s memory can be made to:

Lakeshore Humane Society
431 E. Chestnut Street
Dunkirk, NY 14048

The Dunkirk Pet Pantry
5257 VanBuren Road
Dunkirk, NY 14048

Dunkirk Historical Society
513 Washington Ave.
Dunkirk, NY 1404




  1. Don Carlisto May 11, 2016 at 9:35 pm #

    I’m saddened by Joe’s passing and incredibly fortunate to have gotten a chance to know him while serving as a fellow member of NYSUT’s Board of Directors the past two years.
    Joe’s activism, unionism and quiet determination are a shining example for us all.
    Don Carlisto

  2. Greg McCrea May 11, 2016 at 9:50 pm #

    Brother Sweeny’s career will forever be an inspiration to New York’s education and labor community. We are all very fortunate to have been touched by his life work through NYSUT’s many state conferences and Representative Assemblies, an important reminder that it is our work that connects us. A life in education is surely a life worth living.

  3. Jacquie Sedgwick May 11, 2016 at 10:23 pm #

    Rip mr s. 🙁 may you get some much needed rest.

  4. Mary Ellen Decker May 11, 2016 at 10:24 pm #

    This article could have gone on forever but it more than captures the essence of his passion for both unionism and politics…two entities inextricably entwined. Thank you for honoring the man who has been such a part of my life for so many years. Right now it is hard to imagine a future without him by my side. We, his family and mine, (plus our 3 dogs) miss him terribly

    • carmen quinones May 13, 2016 at 11:39 am #

      My heart goes out to Joe’s family and friends. I send love and healing vibrations. I recently met Joe when I began hosting Women For Bernie Meet-ups. Joe was so kind and encouraging to everyone. He had a wonderful presence in our community. Let us honor his life by being the best that we can be as human beings, as citizens of our country and stewards of the earth. peace be with everyone. Mary Ellen Decker, love to you and your three fur-babies. I know that you are all grieving and may you be strengthened by Joe’s Eternal Love and Light.

    • Bob Kendig May 15, 2016 at 12:24 am #

      Joe was always passionate and a friend who could be counted on without question. A great sense of humor and an intellectual energy and intelligence that never allowed him to be under estimated,. All who knew him will never forget him.God bless him and his family.

    • Kendra Ormond Waddington May 19, 2016 at 9:38 am #

      Yes, this could have gone on and on cause Joe did so much–service to all who needed a champion fighter. My heart and prayers are with you and your families. I went to the Chautauqua County Workers Memorial and was especially hoping to see you and Joe. I heard he wasn’t well, but really worried when he didn’t come to the memorial was said Joe didn’t miss anything he could. I hope to see you soon. Kendra/CWA 1141 and NYSUT retiree.

  5. Dick Iannuzzi May 11, 2016 at 10:34 pm #

    Brother Sweeney was one of the most diligent, stubborn and always loyal board members that served on NYSUT’s board during my Presidency. His knowledge of the history of labor– and NYSUT in particular– was amazing and served to help frame every challenging question that came before the Board of Directors. During the process of unifying NYSUT and NEANY during the first years of my presidency, his insights proved invaluable. He understood not only his region of the state, but the state as a whole and the nature of union politics on a national level. Joe understood the importance of a unified voice that valued every local and every corner of NY.
    His leadership was enhanced by the dedication and support that May Ellen provided. I fondly remember her willingness to sit through a long board meeting patiently waiting outside the board room and always greeting me and others who would wonder in and out with a kind word. She waited diligently for Joe and for their journey back west.
    Joe Sweeney was about what was best for those he represented and he never shied away from an opportunity with friend or foe to argue the reasoning for his positions.
    I’ll miss Brother Sweeney’s tenacity and loyalty.

  6. Jessica Olson May 11, 2016 at 10:40 pm #

    It was an honor to work alongside Mr. Sweeny on the Dunkirk Labor Council. His passion for the working class and his drive to strengthen the unions was admirable and inspiring.

  7. David Eggert May 11, 2016 at 10:46 pm #

    Joe was Mr. NYSUT in Southwestern NY for so long that many veteran members could scarcely imagine another person representing them on the Board of Directors. His dedication to NYSUT members, organized labor, and the Democrat party was absolute, and I never knew anyone more responsive to a request to speak or just to be there to support working people. Joe’s command of issues, understanding of history, tenacious advocacy, and clear voice of leadership will be sorely missed in his corner of the state.

  8. Gary Swain May 11, 2016 at 10:50 pm #

    I consider Joe a friend and a voice of reason in the campaigns we supported. He will be sorely missed! Rest easy Joe , FYI Bernie Sanders took West Virginia!!!! Mary Ellen my heart goes out to you, if you need anything please don’t hesitate to call.

  9. Maureen Portman May 12, 2016 at 6:09 am #

    As a rookie in education,I came across Mr.Sweeney at a conference here in Buffalo.He was such a humble and enigmatic leader in the community and his legacy continues!

  10. Martin Messner May 12, 2016 at 7:35 am #

    Joe was a wealth of knowledge, contained a boundless energy and deeply cared about teachers, education and the direction of the state & country. His passion for politics was on display every time I visited the Southern Tier. I found Joe to be welcoming, deeply respected and loved by everyone in the labor movement. As an ED director he was always willing to go the extra mile for NYSUT and could spend hours talking to me about the history of the organization from his personal experiences at the RA to the picket lines. He will be deeply missed and his loss will be felt by all. My most heartfelt sympathies to his family and friends. The world is a little darker without Joe in it.

  11. Susan Cobb May 12, 2016 at 7:52 am #

    We are so very sorry to learn of Joe’s sudden passing. Joe was a devoted advocate, friend, teacher and father. Thank you Joe and Mary Ellen for a lifetime of service to the children, teachers and workers of NY. Our sincere sympathy to his family and friends.

  12. Betsy Sandberg May 12, 2016 at 8:26 am #

    I am so glad to read others’ comments celebrating this dear, dear man. While working in NYSUT’s communications department I often wondered when he would rest. Because budgets or legislation would be proposed (and passed) late in the evenings, That usually meant caling folks for comments at late hours. If Joe didn’t answer right away, he always called back within minutes, and always with suggestions of who else to call, specific members who would be helped, or harmed, by the legislation or the budget. While many shy away from politics, he embraced that world, truly understanding the connections between policy, politics and practice.
    And boy could he talk your ear off!
    In addition, with all his hobbies and interests, you never knew if you might end up talking about motorcycles, dogs, a national park and its historical importance, or…. Yes, as Mary Ellen wrote, this could go on and on.

    • Doug Stock May 12, 2016 at 10:46 pm #

      I first met Joe at a Dunkirk Labor Council meeting in Dec. 1977 and all those years he was a great union leader and a great Democrat I considered him a friend and union
      Brother .
      My sympathy to MARY ELLEN and the Sweeny family
      RIP Joe

  13. Ben Westlund May 12, 2016 at 9:09 am #

    Joe was a great inspiration to me as I became active in my union. I cant see how the hole he leaves can ever be fully filled. You are already missed. Thank you Joe!!! rip

  14. Maggie Reyes Phillips May 12, 2016 at 9:29 am #

    He was a great teacher!! I had him for Social studies in 7th grade and 11th grade. He always got on me because I was quite the slacker…he was happy to learn I went on to the AirForce and actually did something with my life… he will be missed by many.

  15. David Orth May 12, 2016 at 10:58 am #

    RIP Mr. Sweeny, one of the toughest but fairest people I’ve ever met. My condolences to the Decker and Sweeny families.

  16. Tim Majka May 12, 2016 at 11:35 am #

    Everyone involved with NYSUT and education in general owes a debt of gratitude to Joe Sweeny. I would not be a teacher today if it weren’t for him. Tough, fair, intellignet, passionate, driven, dedicated, and caring…pick one word and anyone who knew Mr. Sweeny could write you an essay on how that quality applied to him. He will be missed.

  17. Andrea Figueroa May 12, 2016 at 12:52 pm #

    Joe was a dear friend who has had a strong influence on my life. He was always available to share advice and talk through life decisions. He encouraged my activism and helped me to become the person I am today. I will miss you Joe!

  18. Pam Pleszewski May 12, 2016 at 1:21 pm #

    Many years ago when I decided to be a building rep for my building, it was Joe’s encouragement that helped me to become an active member of our union. Even though he had retired from Dunkirk, I would still talk to him about issues and ask for advice. He always seemed to have the answers and a story to go along with it. Joe was the driving force of the strong contract our local has today. Thank you Joe for inspiring me. I will truly miss a great mentor and friend……

  19. Shawn Howard May 12, 2016 at 1:37 pm #

    The minute I became a local leader Joe treated me as an equal and always took interest in my locals problems like they were his own. It was Joe that would tell me the history of my local. Stories like picketing in the dark along a state highway because the school had kicked us off the property, we were not his local but there he was in the darkness with us. He was a tireless advocate for NYSUT and social reform. Joe cannot be replaced by one person no one has the passion he had. The best way for us to honor his memory is to carry on the fight and never give up, Joe never did.

  20. Jennifer Hasse May 12, 2016 at 2:04 pm #

    Joe was the DTA President when I first started teaching in Dunkirk. I always admired his ability to instill passion amonst the newer teachers. I don’t think I was teaching even a month before I found myself picketting with my colleagues and fighting for the “cause”. He teated every member equally and was a true example of a leader.

  21. Athanasia Landis May 12, 2016 at 2:09 pm #

    A wonderful man, an excellent father, a passionate fighter. He will be missed by many… certainly by me. He was, he is the main reason I am where I am today. I learned a lot from him, everybody who knew him did… Rest in Peace Joe…

  22. Kim Murphy May 12, 2016 at 3:07 pm #

    Joe was Union president when I first moved to Dunkirk to teach here. He was very passionate about EACH teacher’s rights. He treated everyone the same and would stop what he was doing to listen to your concerns.

    Later, my position was abolished and Joe helped me secure a new teaching position that was in the same seniority group. As someone getting ready to retire, I need to thank him again for watching out for me. At another time, the superintendent informed me that I was going to be laid off. Joe stepped in and discovered that they had called the wrong teacher; it was actually the teacher before me on the seniority list who was supposed to have received that news. (Good news, she wasn’t laid off either.) It was good to know that Joe fought for each and everyone of us.

    As I came to know people who lived and worked in other districts, I realized Joe wasn’t the rule but the exception when it came to standing up for us as teachers.

    Thank you, Joe for being our leader. I hope these words offer solace to his children, Mary Ellen, and other family members.

  23. Marcia Grippen May 12, 2016 at 3:51 pm #

    Joe was a great friend and support to me when I was working on Martha Robertson’s campaign in Dunkirk. His passion for Democratic politics, labor issues, education, and working families was inspiring. His loss is big blow not only for Chautauqua County and the labor community but for New York State as a whole. My heart goes out to Mary Ellen and the rest of his family and friends.

  24. Nancy Bargar May 12, 2016 at 6:02 pm #

    Joe was a staple in every attempt I made to go to Albany. It’s hard to imagine an election cycle without him. There was a seriousness about him that I especially appreciated — the sense that he meant business when Democratic candidates came into the picture. Mary Ellen, the news saddens me; however, I love being challenged to register 20 new voters for the party and will work on that in Joe Sweeney’s honor. Thinking of you, his loved ones, and everyone whose life he touched.

  25. Margaret Gostomski May 12, 2016 at 8:00 pm #

    I knew Joe as my sons’ teacher, as my colleague, and as our union president. The article was a wonderful tribute to him and so true. He was an extremely dedicated person. It’s a shame that he died at such a young age and wasn’t able to enjoy his retirement more with Mary Ellen and his family. RIP, Joe!

  26. Anna Geronimo May 12, 2016 at 11:14 pm #

    I was very fortunate to work with Joe for almost three years in the Southwest Regional Office and his help, advice, encouragement, and support have been invaluable. He was completely dedicated to NYSUT, to helping make workers’ lives better through activism and political action, and to making the locals in our region stronger and more engaged. I always counted on his (endless supply of) stories of the history of our locals in the region, or of regional politics, because I felt he was sharing with me the keys to the region. So many of our current leaders are former students of his, or were recruited to be leaders by him or through being inspired by his example. His influence will live long in the region and, as another commenter noted, it is impossible to imagine anyone filling the role he played. We can only hope to honor his legacy with our own activism and advocacy for education and for workers everywhere. RIP, Joe. You are deeply missed, but we will soldier on in your honor and spirit.

  27. bob reynolds May 13, 2016 at 6:10 am #

    Absolutely a huge loss. His passion, knowledge and want for everyone to have both will be greatly missed. and no doubt he is still, and forever will be, talking labor to someone!

  28. Andrew Bogey May 13, 2016 at 11:55 am #

    Joe was an incredibly inspiring individual. I learned what true dedication means through his example. He would always make you feel welcome at NYSUT events. He was at every event I can think of and then some. I remember when we were asked to attend a rally in Buffalo on a Friday night a few years back. Union Brothers and Sisters marched on Niagara square because the test and punish era was upon us. Joe walked through the crowd and thanked me for driving the two hours to get there. I will never forget his passion and dedication for making our State a better place to live and work in. We can only strive to be as passionate and dedicated like Joe. He will be greatly missed! RIP Brother Joe. Prayers and thoughts are with you Mary Ellen and his family.

  29. Diana Rodriguez May 13, 2016 at 3:42 pm #

    As a young teacher many years ago I remember looking forward to his opening school day message. He had our respect then and always will for the great work he did for all of us. Thank you. Thoughts and prayers to his family and Mary Ellen.

  30. Andrew Decker May 13, 2016 at 9:30 pm #

    I just got off the phone with my mom about 20 minutes ago, and I told her about how many times this post has been linked to Facebook–by Joe’s colleagues and students alike. Since I’ve never been able to convince her to sign up for it, she asked me, “Maybe when you’re home, you can show me all the posts.” I think she’ll be pretty amazed at it all. From the generations of students that Joe taught just in and of themselves, I’ve received well wishes, prayers and condolences from people in something like 20 states and a couple of other countries. Add that to the comments here and the countless calls, texts and emails my mom has received, the outpouring of love, sympathy and remembrance, as well as the help she’s received in person this past week, it’s all been nothing short of remarkable, and she wants you to know that it’s deeply, deeply appreciated.

    Long before I really knew him on a personal level, Joe was my 8th grade social studies teacher, and as difficult a class as it was, even for an honors student like me, I really appreciated his deep love and knowledge of the subject, along with his love for politics, an understanding of which only deepened for me over the last 30 years with the innumerable conversations we had on those subjects, among many others (my personal favorite was arguing baseball with him). He was a teacher to me on so many levels.

    Much more than that, though, he was, and is, in my heart for how happy he made my mom, and I’m truly grateful that he was able to do so for so long. Theirs was a bond that was really special, and I’m glad that they found it with each other and had it for the time they did. I really can only aspire to something like that, because I know how rare it is and how lucky they were to have had it.

    Again, thank you all, from myself, my mom and my sister, and Joe’s kids, Kaitlin, Robert and Patrick. You all have been wonderful.

  31. Karen Fenner May 13, 2016 at 9:41 pm #

    Labor has lost a Great advocate and educator. His dedication and passion for not only Labor but communities as well will be sorely missed. He was a great educator of issues! I can’t remember having a conversation with him that I didn’t learn something important!
    My thoughts are with Mary Ellen and his Family he loved you all dearly

  32. Roger Pacos May 14, 2016 at 3:52 pm #

    Though his monthly reports at our President’s meetings were lengthy, I always enjoyed Joe’s reports as he left nothing out. He was a passionate advocate for labor, public schools, children, and anyone less fortunate. The man was a walking encyclopedia when it came to NYSUT and unions and his reports were the right blend of fact with a little bit of sarcastic nuance thrown in. For me as a local President, Joe was invaluable in so many ways and he was always there whether it be a meeting, a rally for education or our trips to Albany for Committee of 100. A proud father, Joe never missed an opportunity to update me on what Kaitlin, Robert and Patrick were doing. We have lost a friend and a true advocate for labor and public education.

  33. Winifred "fred" Christopher May 15, 2016 at 11:24 am #

    I often wondered when this man ever slept. Always putting the needs of his union brothers and sisters first and his personal life second. Thank you Mary Ellen for giving us his time and energy. There is now a BIG hole in the southwestern district and the state of New York. He guided me through issues with a calm intelligence that made me a better union president. I’m sure he has the Harley on the road where ever he may be. God bless you brother.

  34. Terry Hammond - his sister May 15, 2016 at 12:34 pm #

    Yup This is my big brother. Always thinking of others. He & Dad best men I ever knew. The world was a better place with both of them in it. Joe was strong, protective, loving & generous. He made me feel loved, accepted,included, safe, and a bit like s princess. I, for one, will miss him more than anyone can imagine. Thanks to everyone who is remembering & honoring him.

  35. Marygrace Guarino May 16, 2016 at 9:09 am #

    I was devastated and saddened with the news of Joe’s passing. I cannot and will not try to add to any of the overwhelmingly positive comments mentioned above-each and every comment is spot on. But what I will add is more on a personal note. As a graduate of Dunkirk High School, and Co-president of SWCS STA- Joe was my union hero. I will miss sitting next to him at president’s meetings and conventions- giving the arm jabs and sarcastic comments right back to him. I truly felt a sense of security- knowing he was on our side. There will be a huge void in our lives, our county and in our state, with him passing through to heavens gates.
    Until we meet again.

  36. Frank Maurizio May 16, 2016 at 9:52 am #

    Word came to NYSUT late Friday that services for Brother Sweeny have been set for later this week. We’re sure some of you may want to attend:

    Calling hours are 4-8 p.m. Friday, May 20, at the McGraw-Kowal Funeral Home in Dunkirk.

    A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at 11 a.m. the following day, Saturday, at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Roman Catholic Church, also in Dunkirk.

  37. Loren Smith-Panama Faculty Association President May 16, 2016 at 10:17 am #

    Joe was the type of man that anyone who cared about others couldn’t help but admire…. whether you agreed with him or not. Many post how long he talked. When he did, I listened. When he finished, I enjoyed him so much I often wished there was more. He not only knew the politics of Albany inside and out…He knew the people and “scuttlebutt” behind the scenes seemingly anywhere in the state of New York. Yet, when he spoke to you he made you feel as smart as him no matter who you were.

    He encouraged me to apply for a job in Albany I thought I had no chance of ever getting. Wouldn’t have done it without his encouragement and advice. One of those “no regrets” times of one’s life.

    On a personal level, we shared the same interest in cars(he had a dozen or more at one point) and Harley Davidsons that often trickled into discussions after any meeting. He told me the story, more than once, of how he left Dunkirk on his Harley for Albany in the morning for an hour long meeting then turned around rode back by midnight. As I recall…up hill and pouring rain both ways. LOL.

    NYSUT and the common working man lost a tremendous advocate. I lost a wonderful friend.

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