Thinking of teacher Penny Gary and feeling the loss of her in their own ways, 50 or so Statesboro High School students, joined by some teachers, administrators and community members, gathered on a green space at the campus late Thursday afternoon and released balloons.
Gary, who taught business-related classes at Statesboro High for about 17 years, died from complications of COVID-19 last Sunday evening at East Georgia Regional Medical Center. She was 58.
“We’re all still reacting to the situation because Ms. Gary was not just a teacher, she was a mentor and a parent to all of us,” said Elijah Beniman, the 17-year-old SHS senior who organized the event. “She loved all of her students, and she would go out of her way to make sure you were OK, and she would push you to limits that you didn’t even know you could reach.”
That was in a phone call earlier in the afternoon when he was asked how students reacted after news of her passing was shared at school on Monday. Beniman, who already knew Ms. Gary when he arrived at Statesboro High in ninth grade, is now the school’s Bullying Prevention Program student leader. Although she was not the program’s current faculty sponsor, she had helped develop its curriculum before Beniman arrived and continued to provide guidance, he said. She was also his 10th-grade business teacher, and he was taking her 12th-grade economics course this year.
After students gathered loosely on the band practice field, bringing their own balloons, Beniman made some remarks before the release.
“If you knew Ms. Gary, you know that she was a person who loved young people and loved to be around people,” he said. “That was just her.”
Beniman also said a prayer, giving thanks for her life, asking blessings of comfort on her family and referring to her as “the heart of Statesboro High School, the heart of Statesboro, Georgia,” who “did so much to change people’s lives.”
‘She spoke her heart’
He didn’t need to convince Tiffany Todd, a Bulloch County Schools social studies teacher currently teaching in the Virtual Learning Program. Last school year Todd and Gary taught together in the virtual program. Then Gary returned to teaching in the classroom this school year.
Now, Todd was attending a student-led balloon release in memory of Gary, who had insisted that Todd get timely, needed medical attention earlier in the pandemic, last January.
“She literally saved my life,” Todd said. “After we had a social studies virtual Google Meet together, she said, ‘Stay on with me, Tiff,’ so I stayed on, and she said, ‘You don’t look like you feel well,’ and I said, ‘I don’t,’ and she said, ‘Well, I want you to go to the doctor.’
“I said, ‘Well, I’ve got this to do and that to do,’ and she said, ‘The Lord laid it on my heart that I’m not to get off this Google Meet with you until you promise me you’ll go to the doctor.’”
Todd promised, went to a doctor the next day, and by 10 o’clock that night had undergone surgery affecting multiple organs because of damage COVID had done to her body, she said. After that she was in the hospital for two weeks and on a wound therapy machine for 41 days.
“Had she not made me promise her that and insisted on making sure that I was going to go to the doctor, I wouldn’t be here today,” Todd said. “They gave me a 30 percent chance to live, and because of her, I’m here and I’m able to continue teaching virtually, and I will carry on what she taught me most, which was she spoke the truth, she spoke through her heart.”
‘Woman of God’
Also there among the students was Vernetta Staten, a William James Middle School science teacher. Gary had taught both of Staten’s sons, and the two teachers were friends and previously attended the same church.
“She was a great woman of God, a great friend, mother, great teacher, educator, colleague. She’s going to be deeply missed,” Staten said.
Gary was a member of Saint Mary’s Missionary Baptist Church, where she served as an ordained minister and as a Sunday school teacher.
She was born and grew up in Glen Cove, New York, and was a graduate of Long Island Lutheran High School, according to information obtained from Hill’s Mortuary Inc. and the Bulloch County Schools. Since relocating to Statesboro in 2002, she had twice graduated from Georgia Southern University, attaining first a Bachelor of Business Administration and then a Master of Education.
According to the school system’s records, Gary completed her student-teaching experience at Portal Middle High School in accounting and computer applications classes. She was then hired by the Board of Education as a certified teacher July 27, 2004, and spent her career at Statesboro High.
‘Put the kids first’
Principal Keith Wright arrived from another school in the system this summer to take the helm at Statesboro High. But he quickly learned who Penny Gary was, and then heard many memories from faculty members after this week’s sad news, he said in an interview Thursday.
“When I was appointed to be the principal here at Statesboro High, Ms. Gary was the first teacher that kind of reached out to me,” Wright said. “She welcomed me, and she wanted to make sure I knew that she was there to support me. That’s the type of person she was. She had more like that servant heart; she’s always willing to do things for others.”
He called her “a great teacher, mentor and colleague” to other teachers and an example of “the type of teacher who always put the kids and their needs first.”
Penny Gary has one son, Jonathan Gary, and three grandchildren, Khloe Gabrielle Gary, Bryce McKeever and J’Zah Amayah Denice Gary, among other family members. Wright said the school’s facilities would be available to the family for any further service.
Hill’s Mortuary, which has been entrusted with the final rites, has a memorial service slated for Sept. 24, 5:30–6:30 p.m., in the Statesboro High School Auditorium, with all CDC guidelines to be followed.