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Students, teachers at Leeds Elementary in Northampton mourn death of beloved staff member Phyllis Ryan

  • Julie Clark, the administrative assistant at Leeds Elementary School, talks about her coworker and good friend, Phyllis Ryan, who died Thursday. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Flowers sent to the Leeds Elementary school after Phyllis Ryan passed away Thursday. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kash Kelly, a fourth grader at Leed School, talks about Phyllis Ryan who passed away on Thursday. "I thought of her as my grandma at school," he said. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A sign at Leeds School, above, remembering Phyllis Ryan, who passed away Thursday. At left, Kash Kelly, a fourth-grader at the school, said of Ryan, “I thought of her as my grandma at school.” GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS PHOTOS

  • Kash Kelly, a fourth grader at Leed School, talks about Phyllis Ryan who passed away on Thursday. "I thought of her as my grandma at school," he said. Next to him is Eleanor Lewis. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lauren Lawrence, a 1st grade teacher at Leeds School, talks about her co-worker Phyllis Ryan, who passed away Thursday. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Heide Erikson, a support specialist at Leeds Elementary school, talks about Phyllis Ryan, who passed away Thursday. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Julie Clark, the administrative assistant at Leeds Elementary, talks about her co-worker and good friend, Phyllis Ryan, who passed away Thursday. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A "Believe" ticket made by Phyllis Ryan at Christmas time when she would read the polar Express to children and hand out tickets at the end of the story. Ryan passed away Thursday. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A sheet of paper which says, “In memory of Mrs. Ryan” and a drawn heart made by students marks where Phyllis Ryan sat at lunch time at Leeds Elementary School. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sal Canata, the principal at Leeds Elementary, talks about Phyllis Ryan, who passed away Thursday. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Julie Clark, the administrative assistant at Leeds Elementary, talks about her co-worker and good friend, Phyllis Ryan, who passed away Thursday. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Right before Phyllis Ryan passed away she decorated the school for May 4th in a Stars War theme for the May the 4th be with you. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A photo of Phyllis Ryan with students in the library at Leeds Elementary School. Ryan died unexpectedly in her sleep Wednesday night. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS



@kate_ashworth
Friday, May 05, 2017

LEEDS — Just about everyone at Leeds Elementary School knew Phyllis Ryan.

Always the first person at school and the last to leave, Ryan was there to greet the early-bird students with a hug at 7 a.m. and say goodbye to the after-school students at 5 p.m. Her duty as an education support professional had her working in about five different classrooms throughout the day.

“Her hand touched every piece of our elementary school,” said Julie Clark, Ryan’s good friend and the school’s administrative assistant.

So when Ryan wasn’t there to greet students early Thursday, Clark said she panicked and had a sick feeling in her stomach. She called Ryan’s home and learned her friend and coworker had died unexpectedly in her sleep at age 68.

She leaves behind her husband, son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren.

“Leeds was very near and dear to her heart,” said Ryan’s son Keith, 37.

On Thursday, students that came early looked around for Ryan for their daily hug. Some children hugged the Principal Sal Canata instead.

Some of the staff went to each room to tell students and teachers the news. Canata said they allowed the art room to be open throughout the day for kids to do art, reflect and gather themselves.

Ryan’s presence at Leeds went beyond her job duties. She made earrings she would give every week to teachers and staff members.

Students got custom made barrettes and headbands. She decorated the school for every holiday.

“Everybody knew Mrs. Ryan,” Canata said.

And there was always a special occasion at the school thanks to Ryan, like Thursday’s Star Wars day. Ryan prepared by posting little signs that said, “May the 4th be with you,” and hung up light sabers and inflatable aliens from the banister in the front of school.

Students said she had urged them to wear Star Wars clothes and for the girls to wear their hair in two buns like Princess Leia. Canata said he has no idea what she had planned for the day.

Flowers in her memory were placed throughout the front office and in the teacher’s lounge. Her favorite seat in the cafeteria, where she would eat breakfast every morning, now has a piece of pink construction paper taped to her spot at the table reading, “In memory of Mrs. Ryan” with a heart drawn in pencil.

On Friday, Clark wore a pair of earrings handcrafted by Ryan. She said has about 200 pairs her friend made custom for her.

Canata pulled out some of the gifts Ryan had made for him — a domino necklace with a Boston Red Sox logo on the back, a Boston Red Sox pin and a small gift package for his 25th wedding anniversary which included handmade earrings for his wife.

One day Ryan read “The Polar Express,” but in a special way. Canata said Ryan lined chairs up to form a train. She sat in the front with a conductor’s hat and a whistle.

“Throughout the building, you could hear the train whistle and bells ringing,” Canata said.

After reading the book, she would give each student a golden ticket with a bell that had the word “believe.”

And for Dr. Suess day, Canata said the whole school looked like “Whoville.”

‘My grandma at school’

Fourth-graders in Andrew Foster’s class recalled with fondness Ryan sneaking them lollipops against their teacher’s orders.

Another time students said they were talking about how they never had pineapple upsidedown cake. The next day, Ryan brought in pineapple upsidedown cake. And on some days she would bring pickles.

“She always kept her promises,” fourth-grader Kash Kelly said. “I thought of her as my grandma at school.”

For the annual spring auction for Leeds, Ryan would decorate.

One year she made fairy houses to be auctioned off. But Ryan never liked to take credit for her work, attributing crafts were donated by a “friend of Leeds.”

Ryan’s love went beyond school, Clark said. During the summer, she would come by students’ homes that she knew needed extra love and drop off popsicles.

At home, Ryan has an entire room dedicated to crafts — packed with ribbons and other materials — a few tables with a sewing machine and other equipment, Keith said. When he moved out about 15 years ago, Ryan moved her crafting supplies to his old room.

Keith said as a kid, his mother would often make his costume for Halloween. One year he was a bag of jellybeans.

She was passionate, full of energy and selfless, Ryan’s son said. “She always put everyone first,” Keith said.

These past few days with his mother gone, Keith said it seems like a bad dream.

Caitlin Ashworth can be reached at cashworth@gazettenet.com.