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March 15, 2001

A caring soul, a heartfelt loss
by BOB WELCH
Columnist, The Register-Guard

ON MONDAY, Feb. 26, when a Eugene School District "care team" gathered at Jefferson Middle School to help students and faculty deal with the death of a teacher, someone was missing.

That someone was Laurel Waterhouse, a Jefferson teacher who would have been spearheading the team that helps schools deal with tragedies.

Only this time, she wasn't around to bring comfort. Instead, she was the reason people needed it.

Waterhouse, 39, died Feb. 24 after being struck by a hit-and-run driver in Kissimmee, Fla., where she'd been at Walt Disney World with her husband, 10-year-old daughter and parents.

Today, the school will honor the teacher's memory with a 10 a.m. tree-planting ceremony organized by her Learning Center class, followed by a 10:30 a.m. school wide memorial service.

In a world of takers, Laurel Waterhouse was a giver. Talk to a dozen people who knew her and that theme washes ashore again and again.

You'll hear about how she taught kids with learning disabilities to believe in themselves. How she overcame bureaucratic obstacles to get students what they needed to learn and grow. How, as part of the care team, she had an almost innate sense of who needed what.

She was like this EMT for the soul, rushing to the rescue with a listening ear and a gentle touch.

"When she got the call to go to Springfield after the Thurston tragedy, she brought all sorts of teddy bears," says Nori Hemphill, former facilitator of the care team. "Some of the kids at Thurston still see her as 'The Teddy Bear Lady.' "

When Principal Paul Jorgensen's 23-year-old son, Jason, died in a car accident last year, Waterhouse was there to help. "She took over and got us going in the right direction," says Kelli Schwab, who was on that team.

When two brothers - one a Jefferson student - died in a house fire, she was there to comfort the students. "She had these wonderful instincts to be empathetic," Hemphill says. "She always knew when, and how much, to respond."

NOT THAT she didn't have an aggressive side. As a teacher, Waterhouse had a "whatever-it-takes" attitude.

"She didn't always take 'no' for an answer," Jorgensen says.

In Port Townsend, Wash., when administrators resisted her plea for instructional aids to help high school kids read, she bought a Hooked On Phonics program with her own money.

Three years ago, she lobbied Jefferson administrators hard for an Effective Behavior Support program, which emphasizes teaching students proper behavior school wide.

"The school has her to thank for that program," says Jim Watson, the program's district coordinator.

Janitors would be sweeping up at 7 or 8 p.m. and find her meeting with the parents of one of her students.

"I've lost a lot of people in my life, but this is one of the hardest," says Leslie Hildreth, whose seventh-grade daughter was among Waterhouse's students. "With her, it was like having an invisible support system, a guardian. She was extremely patient, and pushy in a soft, gentle way, always advocating for the underdog kid."

Kids like sixth-grader Sean Johnson. "She was like a family member," he says. "She made me believe in myself."

He tells how he was supposed to make a model showing one force acting on another. "I didn't think I could do it, but she kept telling me I could." And he did - using a couple of G.I. Joe dolls and a model car.

"I just turned cold inside when I heard the news," he says. "It's like my heart stopped."

Kids like seventh-grader Leslie Montgomery. "I remember how last year at the end of school we had this picture taken, and she was squirting us with this water bottle."

It was that or her gigantic, blow-up hammer that she liked to kid around with - props with a purpose, used as a way to make learning fun.

"She always had a smile," says Annemieke Golly, a former special ed teacher who had Waterhouse as an instructional assistant. "She was always taking kids to McDonald's to reward them."

Tuesday morning, Waterhouse's office in Room 32 looked just as it did when she left for her Florida vacation. You couldn't help but notice the irony: so much emphasis on the healing process that her family, friends, colleagues and students are now going through because of her.

In the corner, a teddy bear. On the bookshelf: "Chicken Soup for the Surviving Soul." On the walls: cards of encouragement.

In a sense, it was a quiet call for other caregivers to come to the rescue. After all, someone has to have an answer for the kid in her class who expressed his loss with one simple question.

"Who will love us now?