For Educators Who Died on the Job, Small Town Offers Big Commemoration

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Emporia, Kan.

Aaron Feis loved his job as a football coach and security guard at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.—so much so that he'd turned down more lucrative opportunities over the years.

"He stayed there for the kids," Michael David Connell Jr. said of his brother. "I honestly wouldn't have been surprised if he was 60 or 70 and he was still working at the school."

Instead, on Valentine's Day this year, Feis, 37, lost his life on the job—shielding students from a former classmate's fusillade of bullets in his final moments.

Feis is one of 10 educators who will be honored during a ceremony June 21 at the Memorial to Fallen Educators, a little-known monument in Emporia, Kan., dedicated to school workers who died "in the line of duty."

The memorial first opened in 2014, but this year's ceremony has additional resonance: It's the first dedication since it was awarded national status.

The 2017-18 school year was an unusually deadly one for the K-12 community, leaving 26 students and six employees dead from school shootings alone, according to an Education Week analysis.

Half the educators who will be honored this year died in school shootings. The other five were killed in accidents: a custodian fell off a ladder; two died in bus accidents; and a maintenance worker and receptionist were killed when a natural-gas explosion leveled part of a Minnesota private school.

"Any time we lose an educator, a little piece of us goes out of the window," said Carol Strickland, the director of the National Teachers Hall of Fame, which spearheaded the memorial after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School left 20 elementary students and six educators dead. "This year, we are adding 10 names, and to me that's just unbelievable."

Carol Strickland, director of the National Teachers Hall of Fame in Emporia, Kan., talks to high school seniors at the Memorial to Fallen Educators. The monument to school employees who’ve died on the job will be rededicated as a national memorial this month.
Carol Strickland, director of the National Teachers Hall of Fame in Emporia, Kan., talks to high school seniors at the Memorial to Fallen Educators. The monument to school employees who’ve died on the job will be rededicated as a national memorial this month.
—Julie Denesha for Education Week


The memorial, which along with the hall of fame is located on the grounds of Emporia State University, is cut into a grassy knoll near a restored one-room schoolhouse. Two massive black granite books, erected on a limestone base and weighing two tons each, bear the names and years of death for 119 educators.

Visitors can use an electronic kiosk at the site to read about the educators' lives.

The oldest entry dates to 1764, when intruders killed teacher Enoch Brown and nine children in Pennsylvania during ongoing hostilities between Native Americans and settlers during Pontiac's Rebellion.

Honoring the Fallen

The names of 10 educators who died in the 2017-18 school year while serving students will be added to the National Memorial to Fallen Educators in Emporia, Kan.

Ruth Berg
47, receptionist,
Minnehaha Academy,
Minneapolis

John Carlson
82, custodian,
Minnehaha Academy,
Minneapolis

Daniel Buesgens
51, maintenance worker,
Eastern Carver school district,
Chaska, Minn.

Richard Lee Proffitt
62, school bus driver,
Prince William County Schools,
Manassas, Va.

Scott Beigel
35, geography teacher and cross-country coach,
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,
Parkland, Fla.

Aaron Feis
37, security guard and football coach,
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,
Parkland, Fla.

Christopher Hixon
49, athletic director/ administrator,
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,
Parkland, Fla.

Jennifer Williamson
51, teacher,
East Brook Middle School,
Paramus, N.J.

Glenda “Ann” Perkins
64, substitute teacher,
Santa Fe High School,
Santa Fe, Texas

Cynthia Tisdale
63, substitute teacher,
Santa Fe High School,
Santa Fe, Texas

Of the 119 names, 89 of the deaths were from violence—shootings, stabbings, or blunt-force trauma, according to the National Teachers Hall of Fame. Most of the others named died in accidents. Strickland said she's almost certain there are fallen educators they've missed.

"It's a somber reminder when you see this huge list of names that educators put their lives on the line when they go to do their jobs," Strickland said. "In some instances, these people were literally giving their lives to save the lives of children. You don't think about that—that's never in a teacher's contract."

The list is too long this year. The names of the two teachers who were killed most recently, in the May 18 shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas, will not fit on the granite books already on the site. Ann Perkins and Cynthia Tisdale will both be honored at the ceremony, and their names will be the first inscribed in a third book, which will likely be erected later this summer.

Teacher Town, U.S.A.

Highway exit signs for Emporia, which is off Interstate 35 and has 25,000 residents, point people toward the National Teachers Hall of Fame.

Teaching "is a valued profession here," longtime resident Renée Sampsel said. "Teachers are undervalued, in general."

Teacher Magazine, a former publication of Education Week, wrote about Emporia's hall of fame in 2000, headlining the article "Teacher Town, USA." The name kind of stuck, Strickland said.

The town has a long tradition of preparing teachers, in addition to a great reverence for them.

The university, the largest employer, started as a teachers' college in 1863, and students continue to come from across the country to attend its preparation programs.

When the hall of fame holds its induction ceremony for five new members each June, the town pulls out all the stops, with banners along the main downtown thoroughfare, Commercial Street, and the marquees welcoming educators to the city. Teachers are "treated like royalty," Strickland said.

The memorial fits right in. "We're real honored to have it here," said Mayor Danny Giefer. "It's one of the things that we're proud of."

The memorial recently received federal recognition, but will remain where it is. Strickland says it would be overshadowed in Washington.

"There are so many memorials and monuments ... there," she said. "We'll get lost. Here it's a focal point."

The hall of fame museum itself is a one-room former television studio that serves as a repository of artifacts from the American schooling system.

There are teachers' union contracts dating back to 1920, a Dictaphone, a mimeograph machine, old Apple computers, and floppy disks.

Model classrooms, including one of a "dame school" from 1630 that operated out of a woman's home and a one-room Freedmen's Bureau school for freed black students circa 1866, provide insight into how classrooms have (or have not) changed.

Visitors—of which there are about 3,000 annually—can flip through a large-print Dick and Jane reader from the 1950s. A paddle bears the signatures of those on whom it was used.

The memorial was first conceived after the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Conn., shook the country. The National Teachers Hall of Fame inductees wanted to pay tribute to the educators who died in the massacre and initially planned to include them in an induction ceremony for new hall of fame members. But a little more than a month after the Newtown tragedy, a gunman boarded a school bus in Midland City, Ala., and killed the bus driver.

One month. Seven educators. The hall of fame inductees wondered: How many more were there?

Finding the Fallen

Many people can name Christa McAuliffe, the Concord, N.H., teacher who died in the 1986 Challenger explosion. The teachers also knew of Dave Sanders, who was killed in the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, and James McGee, a Kansas principal who was shot and killed at school by a student in 1985.

The teachers' unions—the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers—added names to the list.

The names of the six educators who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 are memorialized at the Memorial to Fallen Educators.
The names of the six educators who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 are memorialized at the Memorial to Fallen Educators.
—Julie Denesha for Education Week


The group borrowed from the law-enforcement community the idea of honoring those who had died "in the line of duty," whether during school, after school, or on field trips. (Those who died of natural causes and victims of domestic violence, even if the fatal incident occurred at the place of work, are not included in the memorial. Contractors are also not included.)

"Once we started, we had no idea what we were dealing with, whether it was a handful, 20, or 30," Strickland said. "We developed the idea that we would just get a granite book, and maybe have a bench by the one-room schoolhouse."

They soon realized they needed a bigger book. The organization raised $300,000 through donations, including from the teachers' unions, to build the monument.

The hall of fame also made a conscious decision to include school support staff, who Strickland describes as the "the heart of the school district."

"Teachers and administrators could not do their jobs if it were not for the education support professionals," said Strickland, a former Kansas Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Teachers Hall of Fame. "Oftentimes, the students will not see the teacher until having seen the bus driver, the lunchroom workers when they go for their breakfast, the attendance clerk, maybe a counselor, the security guard who is in the front hallway."

Beth Morgan was surprised—"but very honored"—when she was contacted about including her father, John Carlson, a custodian who died this school year in a natural-gas explosion at a Christian school in Minneapolis.

"Certainly, we consider our dad to be a life teacher, but he was not a school teacher, he did not teach a subject matter," said Morgan, who will be representing the family at the ceremony. "We are very touched that he's being included."

Josh Chopper remembers Sept. 11, 2016, vividly.

That was the day his wife, Kari, a bus driver for the Adams 12 Five Star district in Thornton, Colo., was killed when the school bus she was driving crashed into a pillar at the Denver International Airport.

"My world ended that day," he said.

Kari Chopper was known for baking cupcakes for students for their birthdays and crafting handmade gifts for the holidays, said Josh Chopper, who worked as a paraprofessional for the district and was often on the bus with her.

The memorial means a lot to his family, he said. He's traveled to Emporia twice since his wife's name was added in 2017.

"It's a very humbling experience," he said. Visitors can "look at the … wall, and look up her name and say, 'Wow, it's really a strong woman who did the things that she did, a strong woman [who] saved the lives of everyone else on the bus, put her life in danger instead of theirs.'"

But for some of the families of those killed this year, the pain is still too raw. Some will not be attending the ceremony.

And even in communities that have lost large numbers of students and school staff in school shootings, the memorial to fallen educators still remains largely unknown.

That's true for many people in Newtown, said Anthony Salvatore, a former assistant principal at Sandy Hook Elementary School (who had transferred to the middle school before the shooting). Salvatore attended the 2014 dedication and plans to attend this year's ceremony.

(The June 21 event will be live-streamed, beginning at 2 pm, CDT, on www.kvoe.com.)

Related Blog

Aaron Feis' brother Connell who lives in Leavenworth, Kan., about 120 miles from Emporia, plans to attend as well.

His mother, siblings, and Feis' wife and daughter are still grieving, but he thinks they appreciate the efforts, both local and otherwise, to honor his brother.

"He was a great man, a great brother, and he was a good caretaker for those students," Connell said.

Vol. 37, Issue 36, Pages 1, 16-17

Published in Print: June 20, 2018, as Memorial Honors Fallen Educators
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Recommended

Commented