Students celebrate life of beloved kindergarten teacher

Debbie Graff Utterback was the quintessential kindergarten teacher.

She handed out hugs to children and gently reassured their parents for 24 years at Highlands Elementary in the Shawnee Mission School District.

She reminded the children to take turns. Pushed them to read and spoiled them every Friday with Fluffy Fresh donuts.

She cried every spring when her babies moved on to first grade.

So when Mrs. Utterback, who had no children of her own, died last week, many parents and her kindergartners — some now grown with their own children — wanted to do something special to honor her.

On Thursday, they celebrated her life and the day that would have marked her 59th birthday. Girls and many boys dressed in pink, her favorite color, and released pink balloons. The school planted pink flamingos and happy faces in the yard in tribute.

Highlands Principal Jennifer Spencer said shy children seemed to melt into her hip.

“Mrs. Utterback would be that person standing at the door in pink,” Spencer said. “Her warmth would immediately relax any nervous mom and any anxious dad.”

She often planted especially nervous children on her lap the first few days until they grew comfortable with classmates.

“Honestly, many of these families saw her as an extension of their family,” Spencer said.

The cities of Fairway, Mission and Prairie Village declared Thursday “Mrs. Utterback Day” in acknowledgement of her public service teaching generations of northeast Johnson County youngsters.

Mission and Fairway ordered their flags to half-staff. Fairway Mayor Jerry Wiley issued a proclamation: “Whereas she taught hundreds with love and kindness the most important lessons they will ever learn in life: Share. Play fair. Don’t hit. Put things back. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry. Wash your hands. Take a nap. Watch out for traffic. Hold hands and stick together.”

As years passed, parents started to request that Mrs. Utterback be their child’s teacher.

PTA President Dawn Thibodeau said she had no idea how lucky she was when her son, now a freshman at Shawnee Mission East, turned up on Mrs. Utterback’s class list.

“I still remember leaving my little boy on his first day. We didn’t know anybody at that school,” Thibodeau said. “But it was just such a warmth that she gave. You just walked away knowing that it’s going to be OK.”

Years later, her daughter, now a second-grader, ended up in Mrs. Utterback’s class, too. “I was just thrilled.”

The teacher’s sister, Nancy Kruse, helped in the kindergarten classroom once in a while.

“She was so energetic and she was able to keep up with them. And believe me, you have to have a lot of energy to keep up with them,” Kruse said. “You just don’t sit down when you’re with these little ones.”

Utterback never had children of her own. She met her husband, Don, 30 years ago while moonlighting at Boots Williams Ford. She was a receptionist and he was a car salesman. They went steady for 21 years before making it official nine years ago, he said.

It was a milestone for students, too, because that’s when Ms. Graff became Mrs. Utterback.

Students came back even after college to say hello.

“She could tell who they were when they walked in the door even though she might not have seen them for 10 years,” Don Utterback said. “That in itself is an indication that she had an effect on children when they’d come back that late in life to visit with their kindergarten teacher.”

Mrs. Utterback was forced to take sick leave not long after the school year started to address an infection in her knee. The infection got worse and eventually other health problems started to take a toll. She was in and out of the hospital all year, always planning to return to her classroom.

Family expected her to rally. Co-workers thought she would be back in the fall.

But last week the toll was evident. She was weak from months of illness.

Students had been stopping by to visit her.

“The kids knew she was fighting an illness,” Spencer said.

But it didn’t make sharing the news with children any easier.

“They are eternally optimistic,” Spencer said.

Rather than explain the death at school, the principal sent home a sealed envelope and asked families to talk.

“It is really best that kids get to sit down with mom and dad and get to ask the questions,” she said.

The school was ready with counselors the next day.

This week, staff members found themselves explaining the concept of celebrating her life even as they mourn her death.

“The children have had a lot of discussions about her happy spirit,” Spencer said.

That spirit was remembered vividly by several former students who came on Thursday. A group of Shawnee Mission East seniors still recall how Mrs. Utterback encouraged them to read.

“If you read, like, 10 books, you would get a gumball or something,” said Evan Westhoff, 18, of Fairway.

And if you kept reading you would get a medal, said Luke Fleming, 18, of Prairie Village. He came across his recently.

“You can’t forget a teacher like Mrs. Graff,” he said. “She was a great teacher.”

“She just knew how to inspire kids to learn,” said Tamas Kapros, 18, of Mission.

Don Utterback thinks his wife would have loved the celebration. He figures the line to see her would have wrapped around the parking lot and she wouldn’t have left until she’d visited with every last soul.

“She would have been laughing and hugging everybody,” he said.