St. Augustine Record
Laurie Bennett Ellis was a woman with a passion for teaching and a gift for laughter.
Before summer vacation was over each year she was itching to get back in the classroom, bubbling with ideas for making the school year memorable for students.
Ellis, who had ALS which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, died Saturday at Haven Hospice Care Center in Orange Park. She was 58.
Until March of last year Ellis was in the classroom. After she was diagnosed with ALS 2½ years ago, she made the decision to continue teaching as long as possible. With help from her husband, Pete Ellis, and son, Jared D’Amico, and her friends, neighbors and fellow educators, she was able to stay in the classroom.
“She went from a cane to a walker to a scooter to what’s called a motorized power wheelchair; she did that in 15 months but she continued to teach,” said Pete Ellis, former editor of The St. Augustine Record who retired to become his wife’s caretaker.
Her determination didn’t surprise those who knew her.
“She had a very, very rare gift as a teacher,” said Mary Jones, a mental health therapist and teacher who became friends with her in Sioux Falls, S.D. “She had a passion for teaching … that you don’t see very often. It was not about going to work day after day, it was about bringing out the best in kids. She could find a way of lighting fires.”
“ … She was gifted, and I don’t say that lightly. Kids always lit up when they saw her and that’s not easy to do with middle school kids.”
From the time she was in middle school, Ellis knew she wanted to be a teacher. Born in Brookline, Mass., she taught in Kelso, Wash., Sioux Falls, S.D., and Bow, N.H.
When Pete Ellis was chosen as editor of The Record, Laurie Ellis became a teacher in Florida. For four years she taught at the Center for Arts at Murray Middle School. For the last four years of her teaching career, Ellis was at PVPV/Rawlings Elementary School teaching first in the fifth grade and then in the third.
“She was just such a great educator because she loved kids. When you love kids you can’t help but do the right thing. … She put them first. That’s what I remember about her,” said Kim Dixon, principal at Otis Mason Elementary School and Ellis’ former boss at Murray.
“I used to sit in my office between the classrooms and listen to her read,” said fellow teacher Theresa Gzykbek.
“She did voices for the different characters,” added Melissa Whitehead, a second grade teacher.
When a child would get 100 on reading comprehension tests, Ellis let them ring a bell and run a lap around the class as their fellow students cheered. The bell ringing tradition continues.
A voracious reader, Ellis wanted to pass along her love of reading. Before her death she gave money to PVPV/Rawlings to start a book collection including some of her favorite authors such Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl. There are 175 books in what will be known as the Laurie Bennett Ellis Book Collection and each carries a bookplate with a Dr. Seuss quote. A scholarship in her name will help high-achieving St. Johns County students who want to become teachers.
Pete Ellis recalled his wife’s “prodigious sense of humor. She was very, very funny. … She liked to carry a sense of humor into the classroom. She said if the kids were having fun they were more engaged and learned more.”