The Hawkeye

Former MTHS English teacher dies at 63

By Nolan DeGarlais, News Editor

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Former MTHS English and social studies teacher Gaynelle Derr died in December 2017 at the age of 63. Derr taught at MTHS for 11 years until her retirement in 2015 for medical reasons. In those 11 years, Derr developed special relationships with fellow staff and her students, who were both Advanced Placement and general education.

Derr was born Jan. 12, 1954 in Riverside, Calif. Before entering the field of education, Derr worked as a political activist, with her first job coming from labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez. Chavez is best known for founding the National Farm Workers Association labor union and creating a moral cause with nationwide support to unionize farm workers. Derr worked as an organizer for Hispanic farm workers in California and would often work in the field alongside them, spending long days under the sun picking grapes.

Derr graduated from high school in 1972 after becoming the youngest champion of the California State Tournament for Extemporaneous Speech. She was admitted to the California State University Northridge, where she worked toward a Bachelor of Music in conducting. Derr continued her involvement in public affairs, volunteering for Sen. George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign against incumbent Richard Nixon and continuing her volunteer work with Hispanic farm workers.

During the 1976 presidential election, Derr worked Jimmy Carter’s campaign by leading donor relations. She kept track of people at fundraisers who Carter needed to interact with and navigated the then-presidential candidate towards those individuals with nonverbal signals. Derr played an essential role in helping the former Georgia governor achieve national name recognition against incumbent Gerald Ford.

Derr attended the University of California Berkeley (UC Berkeley) after working with the Carter campaign and graduated in 1980. While at Berkeley, she met her future husband Jay Derr, who joined a law firm in Seattle after his graduation, prompting Derr to temporarily move into his apartment. The couple wed in 1983, having their first daughter Kaitlyn in 1984 and their second daughter Allison in 1988.

She quickly became involved in the politics of Washington state, becoming an influential lobbyist for issues such as gun control and gay rights. She also worked on the team that elected Sen. Patty Murray to her first term in office, helping create an image of a mom with whom voters could relate.

Derr also heavily participated in developing solutions to youth gang violence that developed in the 1990s. Former Washington governor Mike Lowry appointed her to lead the state task force charged with combating emerging gang violence. During her time on the task force, Derr would often hold community forums to help calm tensions, ensuring all parties involved had a voice.

Though she had a passion for politics, Derr ultimately felt it over consumed time which she could spend with her family. Still wanting to make a difference in the world, she decided to become a high school teacher and received her Master’s degree in education from Seattle University. During her nearly two decades in education, Derr taught a variety of subjects in multiple Seattle area schools, including history, music and English.

A woman of strong faith and a proponent of the Christian intellectual movement, Derr began her involvement in the faith at an early age, with her father becoming a Baptist minister in Santa Ana, Calif. when she was only two years old. The Baptist tradition inspired her to get into music as she learned the piano within the church community.

Faith was one of the factors that drew her to the Carter campaign, with every morning on the campaign beginning with a prayer. Derr discussed issues of faith, equality and social justice with Carter while on his campaign staff, which drastically changed her perspective on life and led her into the field of intellectual Christianity. This interest eventually led her back to UC Berkeley, setting into motion her further involvement in politics and her eventual turn to teaching.

Derr’s death came as a shock to her former students and colleagues. Former MTHS principal and current Edmonds School District Assistant Superintendent Greg Schwab expressed how much Derr positively influenced MTHS.

“She [Derr] was a wonderful teacher and an even better person,” Schwab said. “She cared deeply for her students and worked really hard to make sure they did well in her classes. Derr taught both AP students and non-AP students, and she worked really well with students of all abilities. She was fun, demanding, and expected students to work hard—which they did because they knew she cared so much for them in her classes.”

Derr taught many English classes during her time at MTHS, the subject which Schwab also taught during his time as a teacher. Due to this shared teaching interest, Derr and Schwab had a special relationship when they were both on staff.

“As a former English teacher myself, I always enjoyed the chance to talk [with her] about literature, writing, and teaching students. She was always someone I learned from,” Schwab said.

Many former students of Derr took to Twitter to express their grief and reflect on their memories of Derr once they heard of her passing.

“Heartbroken to hear about my favorite teacher from my freshman and junior year [Derr],” 2016 MTHS alumna Rikki Kuhn wrote in a tweet. “I will never forget her telling us how she says a prayer for each of her students.”

Schwab also reflected on Derr’s heavy influence on MTHS during her time as a teacher and offered his condolences to her relatives.

“She was a wonderful part of the MTHS community and a wonderful person. My sympathies go out to her family,” Schwab said.

Though Derr is gone, those who knew her make it clear she will not be forgotten. She was an individual intent on making significant change in the world for the better and those changes continue to positively impact those she worked her whole life to help.

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The student news site of Mountlake Terrace High School in Mountlake Terrace, Washington.
Former MTHS English teacher dies at 63