They had wanted the celebration of life to be fun, feisty and spirited — as Nicki Alexopoulos was. So the friends and family who came Saturday to the Uptown Theater brought their best memories.
They shared decades-old University of Central Missouri stories of dancing to the Doobie Brothers with her Alpha Omicron Pi sorority sisters. They remembered the English papers, covered in red mark-ups, that Alexopoulos would return to her students, scaring them and inspiring them to do better at the same time.
They laughed at the long list of things Alexopoulos adored: sunglasses; Turbo, the Pomeranian she loved to spoil; flea markets; and her grandchildren, Alexander and Brandon. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome.” Books. Lots of them.
But the hundreds of people who came to pay their respects to a revered educator and Kansas City native also found themselves caught up in the sadness of the darker parts of Alexopoulos’ life. She died in October when her son, Patrick, shot her in her Brookside home before turning the gun on himself. She was 64.
It was not the first experience Alexopoulos had with domestic violence. She had survived such violence earlier in her life and in recent years had been taking steps to becoming an advocate, sharing her story.
Last month, Alexopoulos’ neighbor, Alison Hanks, walked in her honor at the Women’s March on Washington in the District of Columbia. Alexopoulos had been a reassuring presence for Hanks, someone who talked to her son, Jude, like an adult and who answered all of Hanks’ questions about motherhood.
After Alexopoulos’ death, Hanks said she felt a pervasive fear. Attending the march was a chance to find peace after violence in the presence of those united by a cause.
“It was a chance for me to reclaim who I was and take Nicki with me,” Hanks said.
A chatty and boisterous child, Alexopoulos grew up in Kansas City and later moved to Raytown during high school. She graduated from Central Missouri and University of Missouri-Columbia before taking a job as an English and creative writing teacher at Boonville High School.
To a teenage “geek” such as Ben Jones, Alexopoulos was a figure out of his comic books. The 1993 graduate of Boonville High said Alexopoulos had the origin story — the idyllic childhood spent with a tight-knit family. She had superpowers — the way she helped a teenage boy deep in the closet, or a student struggling with a parent’s illness — sometimes just by guiding them to a poem or a book they needed to read.
And she had a secret identity, years of pain from domestic violence experience that she masked so skillfully from her friends and students at Boonville and later at Fort Osage High School and Avila University.
“I was convinced,” said Jones, who now teaches at Harding University in Arkansas, “that she was superhero.”
Before Alexopoulos’ death, family and friends said Saturday, she seemed to embrace the idea that the darkness she had experienced was as much a part of her story as the joy she experienced in the classroom and the cherished time spent with family members.
She would own it all, the good and the bad, and to some degree, speakers said, she understood that she could not entirely control her own story. The heroes in the books she loved taught her that.
Daisy Buchanan remains as elusive as a flickering green light for Jay Gatsby. Piggy, the stout, weak schoolboy stranded on an island with the other adolescents of “Lord of the Flies,” is killed by the hands of another.
At the end of the ceremony, a reel of images set to Alexopoulos’ favorite songs played. At the very end, a clip from one of her favorite movies: “Dead Poets Society.” In the film, a teacher played by Robin Williams wins the hearts of a group of prep school boys by challenging them to expand their own perspectives, jumping on a desk to illustrate his point. At the film’s conclusion, the students stand on their chairs and shout “O Captain! My Captain!,” a Walt Whitman reference, to honor him.
In a dark auditorium, dozens of Alexopoulos’ friends and family watched that clip. Then, in their suits and dresses, they hopped up onto their chairs and stood silently to honor her.