When the students opened the envelopes, their shock and gratitude was both visible and audible.
Some wiped away tears, which they had been doing for the past several minutes. Others gasped and a few simply stared at the paper.
Among the items in the envelope was a monetary gift from friends and family of late Parkview Elementary School teacher Tracey Luhr.
The recipients were 10 members of Luhr’s final class.
“It means she’s still looking out for us,” Columbia High School senior Natalie Frentzel said. “She’ll always be in our hearts.”
Like Frentzel, all the students from Luhr’s final class graduated Sunday.
To honor Luhr, friends and family held a short ceremony by the bench dedicated to her outside Parkview Elementary where they presented the students with their gift.
“We’ve had it in the back of our minds for years,” said Donna Wierschem, who taught with Luhr at Parkview Elementary. “After the accident happened, a group of family, friends and teachers worked together to do some fundraisers. The whole idea of the fundraisers was to give back to kids.”
The money did just that, but when the fundraisers stopped they still had money left.
It was then that Audrey Kelly, another one of Luhr’s friends, had the idea to give it as a gift to Luhr’s former students.
So, the gift has been about 10 years in the making.
Luhr died May 23, 2009 after the pickup truck she was in collided with another pickup truck pulling a flatbed trailer on Route 3 between Waterloo and Red Bud.
Illinois State Police said the accident occurred when the truck pulling the trailer jackknifed and went sideways into the northbound lane where it was T-boned by the truck Luhr was riding in.
Both vehicles ran off the road and burst into flames, ISP said.
In addition to Luhr, a 9-year-old passenger in the other truck died from the collision.
At the time, those who knew her said Luhr was a “bundle of energy” who was always smiling.
That memory remains today.
“When we were all ready to burn out as teachers, it was that breath of fresh air with Tracey coming in because it was what she loved to do and she’d been away from it,” Wierschem, who now teaches at Eagleview Elementary School, recalled.
Luhr had been away because she had worked with her husband, Brian, in the family business of Green Tree Enterprises for 15 years.
Before that, she taught for a few years at Ss. Peter & Paul Catholic School and Immaculate Conception School.
She returned to teaching, this time teaching second grade at Parkview Elementary, for the last three years of her life.
While teaching, Luhr also earned her master’s degree in just one year, earning straight A’s.
Wierschem relayed that information to students at the ceremony.
“She loved teaching and she loved you,” Wierschem told the students, her voice breaking with emotion. “She worked very hard to make your day special. I know that because I was next door and we could hear the laughter. My kids were always jealous.”
“You guys are the last class that was touched by her,” Wierschem added. “She passed on to you guys so many important things.”
Wierschem said those lessons included a love of learning and excitement to try new things.
“I hope, also, she passed on to you all to be happy. She always had a smile on her face,” she continued. “But most importantly, I think she taught you guys how to be a good friend. And I know that because she was good friend to everyone she met.”
Luhr’s husband was among the family who attended the ceremony. Brian said Tracey would have appreciated it.
“It’s great,” said Brian, who was also injured in the wreck. “She’d be really proud of this, I’m sure. She was a unique individual who had lots of life.”
The students, too, had fond memories of Luhr.
A shared one was of her coming to their sporting events and making scrapbooks from them.
“I remember her coming to my soccer games,” said Morgan Armstrong, who was on the same team with Rylee Iorio. “That was a big thing for all of us because we all saw her on the sidelines and we were like ‘What? Our teacher’s here?’”
Ruben Martinez Cortes had a more general memory of Luhr.
“She was always helping me out,” he remembered.
The students also reminisced about how Luhr valued hard work.
“She kind of saw potential in everyone,” Jessica Proctor noted.
Even though they were only in second grade, the students remembered the impact of not having Luhr for their last few days of school.
“I remember how sad it was,” Iorio recounted. “We all came to school and it was just very quiet.”
That painful memory may now be replaced in the students’ minds with Luhr’s final gift to them, which they all appreciated.
“It just means a lot because, a lot of us, we never forgot about what happened,” Josh Marion said. “We learned a lot of things from her, and we learned most not to take other people for granted.”