Educator dies during Caribbean vacation
Shirley Kolkebeck found her calling later in life than most teachers. But her knack for understanding children and their parents won her teacher of the year honors at the Ridgewood elementary school where she taught.
That community of teachers, parents and children was grief-stricken after learning that the 60-year-old Harrington Park woman had died Feb. 18 while vacationing with her husband in the Cayman Islands.
The couple had been scuba diving, Ken Kolkebeck said. She seemed fine afterward but awoke that night having difficulty breathing.
Shirley Kolkebeck, a native of Bridgeport, Conn., taught 22ï¾½ years in Ridgewood. She had planned to retire next year, her husband said. The couple, who met when they were in college in Massachusetts, would have been married 40 years come June.
In the early years of their marriage, her husband's job required them to move several times. They first came to New Jersey in 1976, then moved to Pittsburgh.
While there, Shirley Kolkebeck got involved through her church with a program called "Mother's Day Out" that provided temporary child care. When the couple moved back to New Jersey, she and a friend replicated the program in 1981 at the Community Church of Harrington Park.
That experience led her to become a teacher's aide and to work in a program with autistic children in Alpine. She also decided to go back to school and get her teaching certificate.
"She just loved kids, and she loved teaching kids," her husband said.
At Hawes Elementary School, Principal Paul Semendinger recalled how she worked with a first-grader who needed reading help. She picked up on the fact that he wanted to sit right next to her.
"That made him comfortable and that made him feel special, and that made him ready to learn," he said.
Stories like that were among the reasons Mrs. Kolkebeck was named teacher of the year at Hawes in 2011, the principal said.
"There are a million anecdotes like that. She was a person who cared deeply about every aspect of her craft," Semendinger said, adding, "Everyone is devastated, sad. It has hit real hard."
Georgeann Starace, a first-grade teacher whom Mrs. Kolkebeck mentored, said: "She just brought this great perspective and feeling to everything she did. Shirley was a model for other teachers."
Jane Remshack, whose 10-year-old son was one of her students, recalled how every time she went to meet with Mrs. Kolkebeck, she would start the conversation by saying, "I just love your son.&"
To accommodate Remshack's own working hours as a teacher in Fair Lawn, Kolkebeck often would meet her after school hours.
All of that made it very difficult for Remshack when she and her husband sat their son down Saturday to explain that his teacher had died. "It was such a hard thing," she said. "His face, you could just see the color drain out."
Besides her husband, Mrs. Kolkebeck is survived by their sons Keith and Scott, her parents, John and Helen Kopchik, her brother, Jack Kopchik, and five grandchildren.
Visiting hours are Saturday and Sunday from 2 to 6 p.m. at the Becker Funeral Home, 219 Kinderkamack Road in Westwood. A memorial service is Monday at 10 a.m. at the Community Church of Harrington Park.
Donations in lieu of flowers can be sent to the Community Church at 1 Spring St., Harrington Park, or the
's Go for Red Women campaign.
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Published in The Record on Mar. 1, 2013