Kathleen Corrigan loved her kindergarten students. They gave her strength. They lifted her spirits. And they're the reason she kept coming to work even as cancer weakened her body.
Corrigan, a teacher at Red Pine Elementary School since it opened in 1995 and a teacher elsewhere in Independent School District 196 before that, died Jan. 9 after a three-year battle with cancer.
Red Pine principal Gary Anger said early treatments of the cancer went well, but the disease progressed over the summer and became terminal. Corrigan continued to teach until shortly before students left for their winter break.
"She fought it incredibly bravely and got to fulfill the end just as she wanted to," Anger said. "She really wanted to teach as long as she could."
Anger considered Corrigan a close friend. Anger's wife is a teacher and was close to Corrigan. His daughters often helped in Corrigan's classroom during the summer. He described her as dedicated to her students and to her job. She had a reputation for pushing literacy in her classroom well before people believed kindergartners could learn to read, and she frequently served on district literacy and curriculum committees.
"She was really ahead of her time in feeling that kindergartners could read and write and that there are no limits to what kindergartners could do academically," Anger said.
Red Pine media specialist Kristi Boyes said Corrigan was the kind of person who stopped to ask everyone how they were doing, and who really listened to their answers. She loved her students and she loved to see them learn.
"I think she loved to see the kids be able to pick up new things and especially reading, and just knew what a good start she was giving them," Boyes said.
Corrigan also made an effort to involve students' families. She'd recruit parents to help teach lessons, and when she found a parent with a special skill she'd have them share it with her students. When a family moved to the district from Sweden she had her student's mother talk to the class about Swedish customs.
Corrigan drew strength from her students, but by late last year it was clear that strength wouldn't be enough. Corrigan was as honest as she could be with her students about what was happening to her.
"She told them that even though she looked good on the outside, on the inside she was sick," Boyes said.
Anger has talked with Corrigan's students since their teacher's death about what happened.
"I've spent extra time with the kids just trying to see where they're all at with the grief process," Anger said. "We've been trying to help them understand what happened."
For the most part, students seem to be handling their teacher's death well. Corrigan missed enough time in recent years that students have had an opportunity to get used to the substitute teachers who will fill in for her.
Anger called Corrigan's death a significant loss for the school community, and walking through the Red Pine hallways it's clear to see just how far her impact reaches. A display set up in her honor has drawn comments from hundreds of people.
A number of high school students have returned to Red Pine to pay tribute to their old teacher.