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East Helena school mourns longtime teacher

2011-10-03T23:59:00Z 2011-10-04T11:38:01Z East Helena school mourns longtime teacherBy ANGELA BRANDT Independent Record Helena Independent Record
October 03, 2011 11:59 pm  • 

The Statue of Liberty comes to mind when many people think about Susan "Jo" Hagler, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at East Valley Middle School.

Hagler would dress as Lady Liberty and in other costumes as part of her teaching.

Another clothing ensemble that sparked a fond remembrance for Ron Whitmoyer, superintendent of East Helena Public Schools, was Hagler's Depression-era outfit of dirty linens and work boots.

"She had a real passion for her subject," Whitmoyer added. "She was very special to the kids."

Hagler, 62, made such an impression on students that they would recognize her 20 years later and still refer to her as "Ms. Hagler."

Her husband, Bruce Wise, recalled a moment just weeks ago when the couple were in the mountains east of Canyon Ferry Reservoir and ran into a former student, who happened to have gray hair.

"He said, ‘Are you Ms. Hagler?' He reacted to her like he was still a student," Wise said.

She remembered the long-gone student and also his brother.

"Every time I'm with Jo in public - Wal-Mart, the gas station, the grocery store - we run into some-body who comes up to her and says ‘Hi, Ms. Hagler.'"

While Hagler was an extremely private person and somewhat uncomfortable with kudos, Wise said he could tell by the twinkle in her eye she appreciated being recognized by and visiting with former stu-dents.

Hagler, who taught in East Helena for 37 years, died Saturday evening in an all-terrain vehicle crash near Elkhorn. She was wearing a helmet and other safety gear at the time of the wreck.

Riding ATVs was a favorite pastime for Hagler.

"She lives to ride," Wise said, adding that the two were very experienced riders. "She died doing what she loved."

School staff was informed of Hagler's death over the weekend and met to talk and plan, Whitmoyer said Monday.

Fellow teachers made banners for students past and present to sign.

"They started filling those out through tears. The staff of course is broken hearted and very sad," Whitmoyer said.

East Valley Principal Dan Rispens sent an email to parents Sunday to inform them of the death and ask them to share the news with their children before the students returned to school on Monday.

"To say she will be missed is a terrible understatement. We have lost a co-worker, mentor, and friend," Rispens wrote in the email.

Many students wore black to school on Monday in Hagler's honor. Grief counselors were on hand for students and staff. A memorial service was arranged by students Monday evening at the school.

"The kids were pretty prepared. It's amazing how composed but saddened they are," Whitmoyer said.

Wise said his wife was nontraditional in an array of ways and while she would be honored by the reac-tion of the community, she would not want a large funeral, if any at all.

"I understand that Jo touched so many lives in a positive way but I need to respect her needs and wishes," he said.

A memorial plaque and tree will be placed on the East Valley Middle School memorial pathway to commemorate Hagler's contributions to education.

"I don't think she really knew there was this kind of love for her. She had an impact on so many peo-ple," her husband said. "Jo was a very emotional person. It would make her feel very, very good."

"What would Jo think? I wish she was alive to know. It would make her feel so good," he added.

Reporter Angela Brandt: 447-4078 or


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