Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Teacher a Huge Loss at 15th Street Elementary School:
Friend, Father, Teacher

Diana L. Chapman

He was a like a father or an uncle and a friend to many – but most of all he was a popular, nurturing teacher with a bright smile, who suddenly died last month leaving behind a gaping hole at 15th Street Elementary School and a dazed campus.
Steve Kemp, 59, who would have celebrated his 60th birthday on April 14, had no apparent signs of medical problems, but was rushed in for emergency surgery. He died a short time later on March 28 apparently of an aortic rupture, according to his wife, Mary Linehan.
Despite the crises teams that arrived on campus, the hardest part for school officials was explaining to the “best class he ever had” that Mr. Kemp would no longer be arriving on campus.
This year, he led a group of gifted third grade students and was extremely pleased with the students, the parents and the way the children were developing under his tutelage, his colleagues said. In prior years, he taught both fourth and fifth grades.
Because of the unity Mr. Kemp brought to his class, students were asked to write their feelings about him as part of a healing process.
Several students wrote about his bad jokes, and explained how when the class didn’t laugh at them, he would. They adored his pizza parties, the books he read to them in class and heading out to P.E. with the amiable teacher.
“The last I heard him,” wrote Javier, “was when he gave me his report card. “He said I was smart. That made me feel really good because those were his words. ..Remembering this makes me feel both sad and happy at the same time.”
Wrote (age?) Amanda: “My personal experience with Mr. Kemp is when he used to make jokes to me that we’re not funny. But he used to laugh, and that would be funny.”
Crises teams arrived on campus to help teachers – and his class of gifted third grade students– to deal with the up swell of grief that consumed the school for days, but was leveled out during spring break.
Even still, teachers at the school said the mourning is likely to go on for quite some time, because the teacher was so giving, he would often drop do whatever he could to help. He began teaching at 15th Street in 1979, but prior to that entered the Peace Corps, ran a small construction business, supervised a dorm at USC and became a volunteer firefighter.
James Campbell, a close friend and first grade teacher at the school, said he arrived at campus knowing the bad news about Steve’s death and had to relay the information to many others who did not. The day was extremely difficult, he explained, because he was emotionally challenged on keeping himself together for his students. Memories of Steve kept interrupting his teaching, especially when he thought about his friend’s generosity and the way he constantly reached out to help others. They carpooled together.
“Across the board, everyone said he would listen to what you had to say and be interested in it no matter what you were talking about,” the teacher revealed. James kept his emotions in check by thinking about his friend would handle it.
“I just thought about: “How would Steve handle this? He would want us to be strong for the kids,” he said.
Filled with stories of friendships and students that he helped, close friend and fourth grade teacher Diane Holt said the two often teamed together up at school to help each other and their students. Calling him her “buddy,” she said every single day at school has been a “constant reminder” of his loss. “He was cherished and so well read that he could come up with multiple perspectives,” on any situation,” she explained adding that he was very father even to her and his students.
His students describe a teacher who spent money on pizza parties for them, stayed after school and would never give up on his sense of humor.
“He always laughed at his own jokes like this: “Ha, Ha, Ha!’ Or “Very funny! Now get back to work,” wrote his student Valerie. “I feel happy and sad when I remember this. Happy because he is always in my heart. Sad because he isn’t here anymore.”
First grade teacher Jose Lopez said Steve mentored him and became a close friend who he admired for the way he inspired children. In particular, he said, the teacher got a hold of one student who was considered a “terror,” by all the teachers. Steve took that student in and Jose said he was stunned by the overall difference of that student.
“I don’t know what he did, buthe changed that kid,” the teacher said. “He took him under his wing and he just turned him around. Sometimes, I think it’s because he just listened. He listened to people and was always interested in what they had to say.”
Perhaps this statement from one student, Panos, summed it up: “Mr. Kemp used to smile a lot because we did so good.”
Steve is survived by his wife, Mary Linehan; his daughter, Kristyn and son-in-law, Brian Dreschsler, and his granddaughter, Ashley. He also is survived by his stepson, Dan Swaigler, a stepdaughter, Demery Ryan, and her husband, Dave, and sister-and-brother-in law, Tom and Carrie Wright.
The family requests that all donations be sent to First Books, a foundation that provides books to children.