- Our Sites
- The News-Gazette
- NewsTalk 1400 WDWS-AM
- Lite Rock 97.5 WHMS
- 107.9 WKIO
- Community News
By SHELBIE ROTTMAN
GIBSON CITY — Debbie Kirkpatrick lived her entire life in Gibson City. For more than half of it, she served as a teacher and director of Busy Hands Preschool, which was, for decades, the small town’s only pre-K program.
With her soft voice and sweet demeanor, “Ms. K,” as she was known to hundreds of students, was someone who many would consider the platonic ideal of a preschool teacher.
When Ms. Kirkptrick died Sunday, June 3, after a short and private battle with cancer, Gibson City lost a fixture in the community.
“To think of how many children she taught, how many parents she met in her 31 years (at the school) ... it is incredible,” said Debra McCullough of Gibson City. “It is a huge loss for our community.”
McCullough, who had counted Ms. Kirkpatrick as a friend since their days in junior high, is grateful that her children and grandson had the chance to be taught by and know Ms. Kirkpatrick.
“Every time I left my kids or grandson at Busy Hands, I knew I could trust her to love them as her own,” said McCullough. “She was such a loving and giving person. She had definitely found her calling in life.”
Judy Eckoff of Gibson City agrees. Eckhoff was director of Busy Hands Preschool when Ms. Kirkpatrick was hired as a teaching assistant in 1981.
“Her love of children was genuine,” Eckoff said. “We are lucky she was there to lead the little ones in our community. She never forgot one child who passed her way.”
As news of her death spread Sunday evening, Facebook was flooded with posts from former students and parents echoing those sentiments. Many name her as the first non-family member to care for them or their children.
“It’s funny. My kids thought she was part of our family,” said Kristin Kutemeier of rural Melvin.
Kutemeier’s three children, as well as her younger sister and brother, were students of Ms. Kirkpatrick’s. She credits the teacher with instilling confidence and a love of learning in each of them.
“She made everyone feel at home at Busy Hands,” said Kutemeier. “No matter who you were, where you came from, what you might be going through — everyone was the same because everyone was special.”
Ms. Kirkpatrick had an ability to create a special relationship with each child in her care, said parents. Through a funny nickname, a joke meant just for them or, in more difficult times, an offer of extra help or a gesture of concern, she made it a priority to bond with each child in a unique and individual way. If she saw an insecurity or a need, she was there to fill it, often going above and beyond her duty, parents said.
Many times, she seemed to know what a child or family needed before they did.
When Shaun Hyatt’s father, Eric, was going through cancer treatment in the winter of 2010, Ms. Kirkpatrick would often insist on giving Shaun a ride to preschool.
“A side effect of my treatment is neuropathy — a sensitivity to cold,” explained Eric Hyatt of Gibson City. “When Ms. K thought it was too cold for me to pick up Shaun (at the babysitter) and take him to school, she would call and say, ‘No, no, no. You stay inside and keep warm. I can get him. It’s no trouble’ She wanted to make things easier for our family and she didn’t want Shaun to miss out.”
Hyatt and his wife, Jami, said this type of gesture was common coming from Ms. Kirkpatrick.
“She wanted to give Shaun ‘normal’ at a time when their was no ‘normal’,” said Hyatt’s wife, Jami. “It meant the world to us but was just typical of her.”
Since Kirkpatrick’s passing, similar stories have begun to circulate through the town.
Michelle Cliff’s daughter Lexi was diagnosed with a form of Leukemia at age 2 and, for the next several years, underwent extensive treatment at Peoria Children’s Hospital and St Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis.
There came a time when Lexi was well enough to occasionally attend Busy Hands.
Though Cliff had concerns regarding her daughter’s health and special needs, Cliff said Ms. Kirkpatrick put her immediately at ease, welcoming her daughter with open arms.
“She was prepared to do whatever she needed to do to make sure Lexi could go to school,” Cliff said.
Because her illness compromised her immune system, it would be necessary for Lexi to wear a protective mask to the school, something that concerned both Cliff and her daughter. Kirkpatrick helped Lexi and the other students feel more comfortable with the situation in a way that Cliff cannot quite explain.
“She just had a way about her, “ said Cliff. “She made everyone ok with it, without denying what was happening.”
When Lexi was not well enough to attend school or when she was out of town receiving treatment, Kirkpatrick would often call to check on her.
“She would report back to the class on Lexi’s condition, answering their questions and helping them understand,” says Cliff. “She had the kids make Lexi cards. She cried with me when things got bad.”
Those calls didn’t stop when Lexi moved on to kindergarten.
“We still heard from Ms. K alot,” said Cliff. “She never stopping caring, never stopping checking on us.”
Cliff remembers having to tell Lexi, now 7 and in remission, that her beloved teacher had cancer. It was daunting task because, as Cliff explains her daughter “understands cancer.”
Cliff said they called and spoke with Ms.Kirkpatrick several times, but they were not aware that her condition was so advanced.
“We didn’t know. I think that’s the way she wanted it,” said Cliff.
When Cliff learned of Ms. Kirkpatrick’s death and was compelled to share the difficult news with her daughter, she was surprised by her response.
“Lexi wanted to know why her treatment worked and Ms. K’s didn’t,” said Cliff. “Then she said, ‘I guess God must have needed a good teacher in Heaven.’”
Many also saw Kirkpatrick as a fierce advocate for her students and the non-profit program.
“She wasn’t a pushover,” said Kutemeier. “She was sweet as candy but also tough as nails when she needed to be. She didn’t let anyone stand in the way of what she was there to do.”
GCMS teachers credit Ms. Kirkpatrick with giving hundreds of district students a solid start to their education.
Former student Sarah Ulrich of Paxton, now grown with a daughter of her own, agrees.
“Preschool is where we get our foundation,” said Ulrich. “I am so lucky to have learned ‘the basics’ from Ms. K. You couldn’t find a better, more patient, more committed teacher.”
That commitment was perhaps never more evident than when Kirkpatrick received her cancer diagnosis just a few weeks into the 2011-12 school year.
Forced to take time off for treatment and recovery, she returned to work as soon as she was able, intent on easing everyone’s worries, said friends and family.
Ms. Kirkpatrick remained at the school for several more months but again took leave in early spring, citing a bout with the flu.
When she did not return to Busy Hands and the school year ended with Ms. Kirkpatrick unable to attend the very popular graduation ceremony, concern sprouted among parents and in the community.
Those who remained in touch with Kirkpatrick said she continually insisted she was and would be fine.
“I think cancer patients choose how to handle their treatment,” said Eric Hyatt. “I have been very vocal about my fight and I have my reasons for that. And for her reasons, Debbie chose to fight privately. “
“She was never one to seek attention,” said cousin and friend Becky Brucker of Gibson City. “I believe that is why she was such a wonderful teacher and a wonderful mother. She was completely selfless.”
Characteristically, Kirkpatrick politely declined when she was approached by friends who sought permission to organize a benefit dinner in her honor. The event would be dedicated to raising money to assist in defraying the expenses related to her care — which were considerable — and to bringing her current and former students and their families together to show their appreciation.
“She didn’t want it, no,” said Brucker, one of the event’s organizers. “We told her, ‘Debbie. You have done so much for so many. Let us do for you.”
It was only out of concern for her daughter that Ms. Kirkpatrick relented, said Brucker.
Ms. Kirkpatrick’s daughter Nicole — a kindergarten teacher at GCMS — lived with Ms. Kirkpatrick and served as her mother’s primary caregiver through her illness.
“Nicole was the light of Debbie’s life. She lived for her,” said Brucker.
“If this benefit could, in any way, make things easier for Nicole, now or later, then she would do it.”
A Facebook event page was created to connect those wishing to attend the event and those wanting to make a auction, dinner or raffle donation.
Marked with a photo of Ms. Kirkpatrick and Nicole, people flocked to the page to confirm their attendance and offer well wishes. Many mentioning looking forward to seeing Ms. Kirkpatrick at the benefit.
On May 29, Nicole addressed the group, expressing her and her mother’s gratitude for the community’s support and love.
“You and your prayers are what keep us going,” she wrote, signing the post ‘The Kirkpatrick Girls’.
Her mother would die five days later.
The family event, scheduled for July 14 in Gibson City, will go on as scheduled.
“The expenses are still there and need to be taken care of,” said Brucker. “But more than that, we want to honor Debbie, to celebrate her life.”