Waves of shock and sorrow spread rapidly throughout the West County School District Thursday morning when teachers, staff and students learned of the unexpected death of beloved staff member Julie Hughes Hall.
Shock soon turned into heartbreak and disbelief as the close-knit staff realized a member of family had died.
Julie worked for almost 25 years in the West County School District.
Through their tears, Julie’s family and colleagues shared their memories and heartfelt stories.
Husband Tooter said he first met his wife Julie in Leadwood at a chat dump party. She asked him out.
“It was love at first sight,” he said. “We just went from that night and we were inseparable.”
The couple were married 39 years.
Tooter said he will miss Julie’s jokes.
“She was always playing jokes on me,” he said. “Anything to get a laugh. She would hide from me all the time and then jump out at me.”
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He said he’s going to miss so many wonderful things about his wife. He said she always took care of him. He has had three back surgeries and recently had heart surgery.
“Anything I needed done, she did it,” he said. “She stood by my side through all of it. She always said ‘for better or worse.’ And she meant it.”
Son Brandon said his mom had a great spirit and “loved unconditionally with all her heart.”
“She loved each and every one of her staff and children [at school],” he said. “She was a mother to me and all my friends growing up, and she loved and lived for her grandkids, fur babies, and Bingo.”
He said the family would get Christmas sweaters that had expletives “just to get under her skin, but she was a comedian and loved having fun more than anything.”
Brandon said Julie loved the bands Kiss and Journey and knew all their songs.
“She loved rock music and her own momma, and how she’s happy to be with her and that brings me peace,” he said. “If there’s anything I can quote, it’s not school appropriate but she’s said since I was a kid, I’m the only hell my momma ever raised.”
Daughter Shannon said her mom was amazing and the best person who made everyone laugh.
“The older I got, the more I learned that everything she did was to shield me from harm,” she said. “She and Dad taught me that love is unconditional, and when you have a chance to laugh, do it because life is about having fun.”
When the kids were younger, Julie liked to play jokes on them. She recalled when Julie would hide and jump out to surprise them. Then when the movie Freddy Krueger first came out, Tooter was unloading groceries out of the truck and Julie hid behind a tree and rubbed two knives together and scared him.
“That gets me every time I think of that,” said Shannon. “My mom was so fun and was amazing.”
She added that Julie loved her “crazy expensive purses and her shoes. But more than anything, she thought her grandsons Howard, Hunter and Brantlee “ruled the world.”
Grandson Howard, a senior at West County, said he’ll miss the motivational quotes his grandmother always said to him “even though it was obvious she stole them from Facebook. And every time I needed something, no matter what it was, she was always there for me.”
Dee Gidden, an employee at West County for more than 40 years, worked alongside Julie in the kitchen as a cook at the middle school.
Gidden said Julie often broke out in songs because she loved music. She was always humming while she was working. Because they started their school day early each morning, they spent a lot of time together and talked about personal things. In fact, they grew close over the past several years and were like sisters.
Dr. Kevin Coffman, superintendent at West County, said Julie was always a champion for students.
“No child ever went without, with her knowing about it,” he said. “Her willingness to not only work in a school but take part in the lives of the children was what made her so special.”
Coffman said Julie made a difference for so many and had a lasting impact on so many people.
“Julie loved to participate in the staff talent shows dressing up like characters and was always a good friend to share conversations about kids and family,” he said.
In fact, Coffman said Julie reminded him so much of his mother.
“From the way she was built to how she loved her family, she was the example when it came to setting priorities and knowing that family always comes first,” he said. “Family was important to her, and that is exactly what she is and will always be, part of the West County family.”
He said he will dearly miss his friend.
“My heart hurts knowing when I walk into the building, she won’t be there.”
Coffman’s wife Sandi, a middle and high school teacher, loved Julie’s laugh and smile and “with her personality, she could make any bad day better.”
“She had true love for the people around her,” Sandi said.
Each morning Julie sang as she helped unlock the building and turn on the lights.
“She always made my mornings great,” she said. “She had such a big heart and had a special way of looking at life that you would always leave happy. She loved West County and the families who live here. She loved her family. She was so proud of her children and grandchildren.”
Sandi said Julie was an example of what a great friend is: she looked on the bright side of life, even when she was frustrated.
“She was a true light in a dark world, and her laugh and smile will be missed,” said Sandi. “Her heart and compassion are examples that I hope to carry on in my life. I love her and will truly miss her more than she will ever know.”
Leah Mills, who retired from West County in May, said she will miss Julie’s laughter and jokes.
“She always did things to put you in a good mood,” said Mills, “and her smile and laugh were contagious.”
Middle school teacher Katie Lynch loved Julie’s smile, jokes, laughter and “love for everyone.”
“She spoiled me rotten,” said Lynch. “She would bring me my cup of sweet tea first hour, always make sure I knew when we were having mashed potatoes, and always made me smile.”
She said Julie showed “so much love and compassion for what she did, she was the glue to our work family, she was that funny lady who made the kids laugh. She was the life of the party and loved big.”
Sixth grade teacher John Hartley Jr. said he’ll miss everything about Julie. He said they often teased each other. He’ll miss her humor, quick comebacks and “her friendship more than anything.”
Some of his favorite memories of when she “griped” at him daily about “grocery shopping in the kitchen” [like getting condiments or leftovers], threatening to throw red Kool-Aid at him, and how she and Dee would scare him and his students by banging on his classroom door when he was in the middle of his spooky Halloween stories.
“There’s a small detail that hit me hard this week,” said Hartley. “Anytime I was down on the gym floor participating in assemblies, playing basketball, eating White Castles [in our eating contest], dressing up as a female to play in our staff vs. girls’ volleyball game, I’d always look out at the stands just to see how the kids were enjoying it and I’d always notice Julie leaned against the rail, usually with a Roy’s cup of Mountain Dew, having a great time, usually laughing at my expense.”
Hartley said he’s going to miss seeing Julie in those special moments.
“She was always a real friend, and I’m going to miss that,” he said. “Love you, Julie.”
Sixth grade teacher Maria Sansoucie loved how Julie always made sure she got green beans or broccoli when they were served in the cafeteria.
“I loved that she always thought of me on those days,” she said. “I will miss her laugh and incredible sense of humor.”
Sansoucie recalled how Julie and custodian Cheryl Gilliam dressed up together as Kiss band members and walked around school.
“She was so kind and accepting of everyone who walked through the doors of WCMS,” she said. “She was a great friend to all!”
Megan Barnett is a West County graduate and has worked for two years at the middle school. When she first started working at the school, Julie made her feel welcome and often checked on her.
“Julie loved her family, and her eyes lit up when she told stories about them,” said Barnett. “Julie also informed me about how [my husband and co-worker] John would eat a lot and how he would never take our Tupperware containers home so I had to go through a trash bag full of them.”
Megan’s husband John, seventh/eighth grade social studies teacher, will miss Julie and his morning conversations.
“She would just light up my mornings,” he said. “Our talks were about anything and everything, but I will miss our talks about God the most. Such a sweet, sweet person with an enormous heart. She always put a smile on my face.”
He said the best way to express his feelings about Julie is to quote Maya Angelou: “If you’re going to live, leave a legacy. Make a mark on this world that can’t be erased.”
John said this described Julie perfectly.
As he talked to students about her on Thursday, they kept referring to her smile.
“Her love of life is something that I desire to emulate for the rest of mine,” he said. “Her legacy has been entrenched in both her school family and her family at home. Our hearts are broken down here, but her legacy will live on in all of the people she touched. Her family was her life.”
John quoted Revelations 21:4: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
“She is pain-free, dancing in the streets of gold, right where we long to be,” he said.
Ryan Hassell, choir teacher at the middle and high schools, said he will miss her “sassy and fun attitude,” especially when former coach Chris Brewer would smart off to her and she would smack him with a spatula.
Middle school ELA teacher Teresa Davis will also miss Julie’s humor and laugh.
“I couldn’t wait for Julie to go live on Facebook to sell her Paparazzi jewelry,” said Davis. “I always tuned in for her sense of humor, and I especially liked the videos that starred her son Brandon.”
She said Julie couldn’t sell jewelry at school, but once she took a necklace to Davis.
“I teased that she should start selling it out of a trench coat, and she laughed and said, ‘I just might do it!’”
Becky Gidden always looked forward to sipping coffee, laughing and telling stories with Julie and Dee on duty mornings.
“That was the best way to start my day,” said Gidden. “I’ll miss that ‘evil little laugh,’ Michael Jackson discussions, and her devotion to God and family.”
Gidden said Julie has been an inspiration to her because she had a “zest for life and enjoyed every minute of it. She loved all the kids and West County staff equally, no matter where they came from. I am honored to have been her friend.”
Gayla Brinkley, a high school math teacher who formerly taught at the middle school, said it was difficult to point out what she would miss about “Little Julie.”
“Some of my best memories involving Julie are when we would dance a jig when ‘our’ songs came on the radio that was usually playing in the kitchen,” she said. “We would say, ‘Oh boy, that’s a good one!’ and would start singing and laughing.”
She said Julie was truly selfless and put others before her own needs.
“I have the most fond memories of Julie, and she will forever live in my heart,” said Brinkley. “She was always able to lift my mood when I talked to her. She made a difference in my life by demonstrating true Christian love and caring, never wanting to be recognized or bringing praise to herself.”
Brinkley said, “She leaves a legacy of love and friendship that will never be forgotten. I will never look at WCMS without thinking of her. Julie was a precious soul who we were all blessed to have known.”
Cheryl Gilliam, custodian and Julie’s recent Kiss partner, said they sung together every day.
“Julie was tiny in stature but HUGE in her personality and love for others, especially her husband, children, grandchildren, and family and friends,” said Gilliam. “If you were her friend, you knew you had the best. To say she will be missed is an understatement.”
Gilliam said Julie was one of the most supportive people in her life and will never be replaced.
WCMS Secretary Laura Richardson said Julie’s laugh could brighten anyone’s day.
“I love how Julie always knew what everyone wanted on their salads,” she said. “If we were having Crispitos, she would always call to tell me. She took care of all of us.”
West County SRO Jennifer Hulsey said she loved how Julie could light up the room with her smile and laugh. She’ll miss the personal notes Julie put on top of her salads every day.
“One of my favorite memories is of her begging me to pull her over in my squad car since she had never been pulled over,” said Hulsey. “Julie had the biggest heart and always had the right words to say. She was the one person that you can tell all your secrets to and she would never judge you as a person.”
Colleague Nikki Simily loved it when Julie and Gilliam paraded around the school in their Kiss costumes.
“She loved to show the kids she knew how to have a good time,” said Simily. “I’ll miss seeing her dance around, her stories about Brandon and her fun-loving personality.”
Counselor Melissa Pipkin said Julie never missed an opportunity to tease the staff or answer questions sarcastically.
“But we knew she loved us as she would tell us this often. She also loved our students dearly and made each season and holiday special for them. Her costumes, assembly performances and special treats are memories I will cherish.”
Pipkin and Julie share the same birthday. Although Pipkin preferred to keep it quiet, there was no way to do so with Julie as soon as she’d learned they shared the special day.
“In fact, she would keep announcing it proudly at the first of our birthday month,” she said. “Nov. 12 will be bittersweet as I think of her on the special day that we will always share.”
Middle school/high school FACS teacher Cheryl Hunt did not know Julie for very long since this is her first year at West County, but Julie made her feel like part of the family.
“She was always a delight to see in the mornings, and I will truly miss seeing her smiling face,” said Hunt.
West County employee Ryan Retzer and Julie Snapchatted each other with “some of those ridiculous lenses, especially when I would pick up lunches for the alternative building each day. She would sing something about that day’s lunch, dressed up in one of those lenses. She was hilarious and not afraid to embarrass herself or me. I will definitely miss her sense of humor.”
Melissa Gidden worked in the kitchen with Julie.
“She was warm, funny, very entertaining with a heart of gold, and finished anything we said with a song,” she said. “She was the big sister I’ve always wanted.”
Amy Clabaugh, district custodian, said as she walked through the kitchen door, she would always hear Julie call out her name, followed by a big smile and hug.
West County Social Worker Stacy Tongay said Julie was one-of-a-kind and genuinely cared about everyone she met.
“I will definitely miss her comments in response to [her son] Brandon’s ridiculous Facebook memes,” she said. “I lived for her responses!”
CJ Wright, iTech middle/high school teacher, said he will miss their morning conversations about everything, from sports to politics.
“She always questioned everything I had to say, not because she didn’t like or believe what I had to say, but just because she loved being a pain in the butt, but that is what I loved about her,” he said. “My 7 a.m. coffee time will never be the same. I will always think of her when the coffee pot is empty because she hated that!”
Wright said he had a bond with Julie from day one because she had a relationship with his grandmother who passed away just a year before he started teaching at West County. He said Julie loved Bingo, and so did his grandmother.
“They won a lot of money together at Bingo nights,” he said, “and great stories were shared on the regular about their times. They reminded me so much of each other.”
Special Services teacher Chris Stroup said big things come in small packages.
“That summed Julie up perfectly,” he said. “She had a wonderful sense of humor, and we exchanged jabs daily.”
WCMS Principal Lindsay Jackson said Julie was excited to see her get the job as principal.
“She messaged me the day she found out and congratulated me and was so excited and supportive,” she said.
A favorite memory was recently when Julie, dressed in her Kiss costume, jumped out from around the corner and scared her.
“She giggled so hard,” said Jackson.
She said she’ll miss Julie’s sense of humor and her perfect comedic timing.
“She made a difference in everyone’s lives by being caring and compassionate,” said Jackson. “She loved the students as her own.”
West County part-time employee Amy McClintock said she will miss Julie’s thoughtfulness because she always did sweet things for her and her kids.
“One time, she slipped some money in my back pocket and told me to go take my kids to dinner,” she said. “She was always so thoughtful.”
McClintock said Julie was “the light in our kitchen and in our school. Her smile was contagious, and she never failed to make you want to be better.”
West County staff member Lisa Puller said Julie never hesitated to ask about my family or ask how she could help.
“She was never afraid to act goofy or look silly to make others laugh,” she said. “She was never afraid to go to bat for someone. She was fearless, and I admired her greatly!”
Former West County teacher and coach Chris Brewer said Julie was like a second mom to him when she didn’t have to be. She treated him with love every day and loved his wife and kids.
“Julie chased and hit me with a spoon on several occasions,” he said. “My favorite memories actually have nothing to do with me at all … it is really special when you watch someone serve young students every day and take pride in it.
“Julie truly cared about each and every one of those kids. On top of that, I had the privilege of watching a dedicated wife, grandma, mom and friend to many for many years. What an example she has left!”
Brewer said Julie helped with his wife’s cancer benefit, to his going-away party, to wanting the best for him, she was always there for him.
“This world would be a better place if we had more people like Julie,” he said. “All of the angels in heaven are eating much better now that she has come home!”
Pam Clifton is a contributing writer for the Daily Journal and a teacher in the West County School District.