Tammy Waddell devoted her teaching career to the students who most needed her.
Always ready with a hug for a kid and a kind word for a colleague, the Forsyth County teacher will be remembered for her classroom compassion and a final request that her friends and family said is a fitting tribute to the dedicated educator.
Waddell, 58, died June 9 after a recurrence of cancer forced her to leave her Haw Creek Elementary post in November so she could get treatment.
Later, when doctors told her she didn’t have much time left, she did what came naturally: She thought of others instead of herself.
It was a simple idea.
She asked her loved ones to remember her not with bouquets of lilies and baskets of mums, but with backpacks bulging with school supplies.
Her obituary asked mourners to donate backpacks to Project Connect, a effort coordinated by Forsyth Central High School. Before school starts, teachers deliver supplies to students’ homes and welcome them back.
“She wanted to leave something for her babies. She wanted to impact the community, the schools and really always those kids that she had the biggest heart for,” said her son, Kevin Waddell.
At her funeral, dozens of backpacks — pink bags, blue ones, printed ones — marked each pew and filled the front of the chapel. Fellow teachers served as honorary pallbearers, forming a line that stretched outside the door. They bowed their heads, book bags at their feet.
When Tammy Waddell’s cousin, Brad Johnson, posted photos of the tribute on social media the response was swift and generous. Johnson’s post on Twitter has been seen thousands of times. A British educational organization told the family it would send supplies to Forsyth County.
At least 100 bags have been donated so far, with promises that more are on the way.
The humble teacher would have shunned the attention but loved that students were getting help, Johnson said.
Kevin Waddell, also a Forsyth County teacher, said his mother stayed home to raise him and his brother. When she began her career (he was in third grade when she did her student teaching) she brought her motherly approach from the home to the classroom.
She worked for Forsyth from 1987 until her retirement this year. She worked at Sawnee and Cumming elementary schools and was named the county’s elementary teacher of the year in 2003. Not that she would ever tell you that, said her friend and fellow teacher Carla Reid.
“Tammy had this gift of even the hardest kids to love, she could love them and find good in them and support them and encourage them like no other. I never heard her raise her voice. I never saw her get upset,” she said. “The world just feels a little emptier without her.”
Waddell often spent her own money to make sure students had the supplies they needed, those who knew her said. She gave quietly and loved wholeheartedly.
Twins Tyler and Taylor White recalled the care Waddell showed her students. Now 29 years old, the brothers knew her and her family, and she taught Taylor in kindergarten and second grade.
“She was like the most loving teacher, and I just remember she just told me to never give up, to always keep trying,” Taylor White said.
After the brothers graduated from high school, they visited their former teachers and presented a rose to those who most influenced their lives. Taylor gave Waddell two roses.
Now, at a time when many more would typically send flowers, they’re donating backpacks. It’s exactly as the teacher wanted.