Elephant’s Fork teacher dies suddenly

Published 9:47 pm Monday, November 14, 2011

Second-grade teacher Leigh-Ann Byrd always made sure her administrators and colleagues at Elephant’s Fork Elementary School knew if she was going to be absent for any reason, school principal Veleka Gatling said.

In fact, Gatling said, Byrd was “meticulous” about keeping everyone in the loop, so the Elephant’s Fork staff was sure something was amiss when Byrd didn’t show up at school on Thursday.

“We had a sense that something wasn’t quite right,” Gatling said.


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However, she said, staff members were shocked when they found out Byrd didn’t make it work because she had passed away suddenly.

“It’s difficult when you see someone the day before in what seemed like good spirits and good health, and the next day, she isn’t there,” Gatling said.

Byrd had only been at Elephant’s Fork since the beginning of the year after moving from Mount Zion Elementary School upon its closure in June.

In the short amount of time Byrd had been at Elephant’s Fork, Gatling said, she immediately noticed Byrd’s unwavering commitment to her students and their parents.

“She was very responsive to the needs of all her kids,” she said. “She made it her business to keep in constant communication with her parents.”

Gatling added, “I heard over and over about how much she cared for the children in her classroom.”

Byrd’s obituary said she died from a sudden illness.

Frances Barnes, Byrd’s principal at Mount Zion for five years and the current principal of Florence Bowser Elementary School, said Byrd was a “very kind person who had a great way of talking with parents.”

“She just had a nice, easygoing and positive way of talking to parents even if she had to present something the child needed or a concern,” Barnes said. “She could come across in a way that didn’t intimidate them.”

Barnes said the news of Byrd’s passing “ruined” her day, and she had a hard time thinking about anything else on Thursday.

The principal said she had spent a lot of time with Byrd this summer when she and a group of teachers visited Boston for a conference.

“I really enjoyed being with her,” Barnes said. “I’m glad to have those memories.”

She added Byrd was very easy to get along with and was extremely devoted to her daughter, Cole, who is a sophomore at King’s Fork High School.

To help the students and staff cope with Byrd’s death, Gatling said, Elephant’s Fork had a crisis team on site Thursday and Monday.

The parents of Byrd’s 24 students were called Thursday, and the rest of the school’s students took a letter home.

Gatling said a long-term substitute teacher, who knows the building and Byrd’s students, has been put in place until the school can hire a permanent replacement.

Byrd was born in Vermont, but her family moved to Hampton Roads more than 40 years ago, according to her obituary.

For the past 18 years, she worked as a teacher in Suffolk Public Schools, and she had just completed her master’s degree from Old Dominion University earlier this year.

Barnes said she thinks Byrd was born to be a teacher.

“She was just a very devoted teacher,” Barnes said. “It was something she was destined to do.”

A visitation for friends and family will be held Friday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at R. Hayden Smith Funeral Home, 245 S. Armistead Ave., Hampton.

A funeral will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, at 179 E. Mercury Blvd., Hampton.