By Erin Duffy / World-Herald staff writer
April 28, 2016
Three Dodge Elementary students stayed up well past their bedtime Tuesday night to put the finishing touches on a banner dedicated to their beloved principal.
“Dodge ♥s Mrs. Simpson,” it read. The heart was colored purple, Principal Crystal Simpson’s favorite color.
“She was caring, and she wanted the best for everyone,” fourth-grader Dominique Minton-Abbott said.
Mourners, including Dodge students, staff and parents, lined the street in front of the school Wednesday to pay tribute to Simpson as her funeral procession passed. The veteran Omaha Public Schools educator died unexpectedly Friday at age 47. [Simpson graduated from UNL's Math in the Middle program in 2010.]
Parents and staff said they were left reeling by her death.
“The message today really gave us a lot of clarity, in knowing her legacy will live on, through us and through the kids she served,” said Katie Dose, a Head Start teacher at Dodge. “That gives us a lot of strength and comfort.”
It was standing room only at her funeral at Grace Apostolic Church and at Dodge Elementary, where video of the service was live-streamed for a crowd of more than 300. Parents comforted children, and staff members, many dressed in purple, dabbed at their eyes. School was canceled Wednesday.
The emotional service was filled with music and praise for Simpson. Speakers lauded her dedication to children, her personal drive that made her a track star and engineering major before she turned to teaching, and her strong faith.
“Crystal Simpson was a gift,” Bishop William Barlowe said during his eulogy. “And God gives us gifts that we don’t deserve.”
OPS Superintendent Mark Evans and Lisa Utterback, who oversees district principals, said Simpson logged long hours as a principal, but still knew how to have fun with her students and staff. Utterback recalled their first meeting, when Simpson, a stylish dresser who loved flashy suits and Nike sneakers, stepped out of a sports car in a Ralph Lauren shirt, khaki shorts and matching sneakers.
“I knew then that we were going to hit it off well,” Utterback said.
Evans said Simpson was driving success at Dodge, which won a gold award for raising student achievement last year.
“I could call over there at 5, 6 o’clock, and it didn’t matter, she was in her office,” Evans said. “She was calling parents, talking to them about what we needed to do for a child, calling a staff member about what needed to be prepared for the next day. That’s who she was.”
Simpson was a Burke High graduate who later majored in engineering and started working at the Lozier Corp. But her husband, K.T. (Keith) Simpson, said she felt drawn to teaching.
She returned to school to earn a teaching degree and was hired by OPS in 2000. She taught at Fontenelle Elementary, where she won the prestigious Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award, before being promoted to assistant principal at Standing Bear Elementary. She became the principal at Dodge, near 97th and Maple Streets, in 2012.
Simpson was hospitalized briefly before her death. Family members have not disclosed the cause of death.
Outside Dodge, students clutched purple balloons and flowers as they waited for her funeral procession.
“She was the best principal I ever had,” fourth-grader Ajah Lewis said. “She taught me how to be a young lady and to be respectful in how I present myself.”
Dose said Dodge students, who made sympathy cards and drew pictures of Simpson, banded together when they came back to school Tuesday.
“They were amazing yesterday,” she said. “They came in, and they were strong for each other.”
Parents said Simpson greeted families with a smile or a high five-every morning.
“She knew my kids’ names and what they were into,” said Sandi Jenson, who had four kids attend Dodge. “She was always interested in them and always remembered, and that means a lot to kids.”
Cindy Robison, a mother of two Dodge students, said her first-grader was scared of the lunch room when he first came to Dodge. Every day for months, Simpson sat and ate lunch with him in the nurse’s office until his fears subsided.
“That was her dedication, to every single child,” Robison said.
Tari James’ daughter Iaya is in second grade at Dodge. Breaking the news of Simpson’s death to an 8-year-old was difficult, she said.
“I don’t think she’ll understand until (Simpson’s) not walking the halls anymore,” James said. “She knows what’s going on, but I don’t think it’s hit her.”
Family and friends, including Simpson’s daughter, Icy Monroe, waved and mouthed “thank you” to the crowd as the funeral procession passed the school en route to the burial at Mount Hope Cemetery.
“Dodge loves you, Mrs. Simpson,” a group of students yelled.
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By Erin Duffy / World-Herald staff writer