FLEMING ISLAND – A little over two years ago, Claire McCool stepped into the classroom with a demeanor that was quieter than usual...
FLEMING ISLAND – A little over two years ago, Claire McCool stepped into the classroom with a demeanor that was quieter than usual. There were no morning jokes. There was no discussion about the previous night’s homework. Some students assumed McCool was having a bad day, a rarity for her. Some students assumed she was mad.
McCool wasn’t having a bad day and she wasn’t mad.
Instead, the more than 20-year veteran teacher stood in front of class and told them she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She also told them that she was going to beat it.
“I looked around and just everyone had the same look on their face – surprise and sadness,” said William Ferrell, a former student of McCool’s recalling that morning announcement. “How could something so bad happen to someone so good?
“It tore me up,” Ferrell said. “It tore all of us up.”
McCool, 62, of Fleming Island, died Nov. 20. She is survived by her husband, Mike McCool; children, Paige Salstrand (Lane), Mary Michael Charap (Kevin) and Lowry Peaks (Jason) and grandchildren, Elliott, Charlie, Ingram, Jane, Anna, Andrew and Jacob. She was born on August 24, 1955 in Mississippi to parents Robert and Barbara Ingram McCool.
News of her passing caused a wave of sentiment on social media. There were only good things to say about this teacher who had a positive impact on hundreds of Clay County students.
Olivia Sweat, one of McCool’s best friends and coworker of almost 20 years, was so proud of Clay High School and their ability to rally together around McCool to raise her up.
“After the news was out, we had shirts made and we all took a picture on the football field wearing them,” Sweat said. “You’ve never seen a school more cohesive, more prepared to come together, than Clay High did for Claire.”
Justin Faulkner, now the assistant principal at Orange Park High and previously an English teacher at Clay High, was one of many teachers and workers in the Clay County teaching community who donated their paid days off so McCool could undergo cancer treatment.
“It was the least we could do,” Faulkner said. “Any resource we could give, we did.”
Faulkner and McCool go back farther than coworkers. Faulkner was actually a student at Clay High who avoided taking McCool’s classes.
“I called her a mean lady, jokingly, when I was in school but I knew nothing,” Faulkner said. “It wasn’t until I started teaching that I realized how influential and how incredible this lady was.”
“For me, she was more than a teacher in the halls,” continued Faulkner. “She became a mentor, a teaching example and my friend.”
While Ferrell was away at college, he and McCool discussed a then-recent emergency surgery and how well she was doing after the operation over the phone. The surgery came at the recurrence of breast cancer in McCool. Sometime later, he learned that hospice had been called in.
Three weeks after the arrival of hospice, McCool passed away in the early morning, surrounded by her loved ones.
“It is with great sadness that I announce the passing of my best friend, my girlfriend and my wife of 40 years,” said Mike McCool, her husband, in a Facebook post on Nov. 20.
McCool used to joke with her classroom about her boyfriend, who everyone knew was secretly her husband.
Students and teachers alike were out of school for the week when they heard of her passing. When they returned to school the following Monday, a moment of silence was held but this moment of silence stayed for the rest of the day.
“We had a moment of silence over the intercom the Monday we got back,” said Cary Dicks, the principal of Clay High. “The rest of the day was quiet and somber but even though it’s sad she is no longer with us, she made an impact on us that we will never forget.”
In her passing, Hunter Alexander, a previous student of McCool, laments the loss of what he calls a once-in-a-lifetime person.
“You don’t run into people like her on an everyday basis,” Alexander said. “She was easily one of the best people I have ever been around.
“Me and so many others lost a mother figure, a second mom,” finished Alexander. “She was there for me when I needed someone to talk to, no matter what it was about, no matter what time.”
Weeks after her passing, Faulkner continues to follow the example McCool set for him many years ago. Even when hiring a new teacher, Faulkner looks to McCool. She showed him what a teacher can be in a student’s life, showed him that teachers can transcend the classroom and be a force of positive change in people’s lives.
Faulkner hopes that despite her passing, people remember the legacy and foundation for change McCool laid out for those who knew her, and even those who didn’t.
“The big takeaway from her life that I will never forget, and I hope nobody ever does, is that no matter what you do, no matter what your job is or what your station is in life, that if you can love people and love them well, you’ve done humankind a service,” Faulkner said.
Sweat said with McCool’s death, she lost one of her best friends. Despite that loss though, she promises to never forget the love she had for McCool, the love the community had for her and the way that McCool reciprocated it tenfold.
A memorial service will be held for McCool at 2 p.m. on Dec. 15 at Hibernia Baptist Church on Fleming Island with Pastor Scott Yirka officiating.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions in her name may be made to Haven Hospice at 745 Blanding Blvd., Orange Park, FL 32065 or www.beyourhaven.org/how-you-can-help/donate-now
“She loved us all. I loved her,” Sweat said through trembling words and tears. “I think that everyone loved her.”