Mary Hartrum would lift your spirits, they say. The gentle soul loved her life, her children – and other people’s children – and never once let on about her own troubles.
And those troubles could have filled a book.
The teacher for the Cahokia School District was remembered Friday afternoon with a balloon release on the last day of school at the district’s headquarters. Dozens of friends, family and coworkers were there to each release a pink balloon and talk about the woman who had brought them joy.
Hartrum died Dec. 4, 2014 at the age of 63.
“She came in for the first week to set up school,” Patrice Harris said. “She was due to come back in six weeks,” but was not able to return because of her illness.
“She started the school year with us,” Harris told the gathered crowd just before the balloon release. “We’re going to close this school year out with her.”
Those gathered passed out dozens of balloons from three huge bundles to friends, family and former coworkers from the now-closed Centreville Elementary and elsewhere.
“I wanted to make sure you got a balloon,” Emily Pike told Diane Chalberg when it appeared there might not be enough. “I only knew her the last year.”
Pike is the only occupational therapist for the district and said Hartrum immediately made her feel welcome. Chalberg taught special education in the district for grades 2-5. “Mary would have them in kindergarten, first and second,” she said after the balloon release. “She got them ready for me.”
“Mary loved life, that’s probably the best thing you could say about her,” Chalberg said. “If you were down, she would lift you up.”
Even amid her own concerns – a child with special needs, then later repeated bouts with cancer and family despair that included the sudden deaths of two grandsons and a son in law – Hartrum remained buoyant.
“You would never know that she was hurting,” Harris told Nancy Prather, Hartum’s sister-in-law.
Hartrum’s hair would fall out during cancer treatments. Prather said after each type of cancer, it would grow back with a different color or texture.
“I wore my hair in a long bob for years,” Harris said. “And before she came back to school after that first treatment, I tried to explain to the kids how she might look.”
The paraprofessional who worked with Hartrum couldn’t explain the baldness or scarves to her satisfaction, so she decided to cut off all her own hair, going to a natural salon in St. Louis to have it cut to less than an inch. “She did me a favor. No more relaxers, I’ve had it like this since,” Harris said.
Two of Hartrum’s daughters, Elizabeth Hartrum and Sarah Decareaux, said her faith was strong, and she shared it with others by leading Sunday School classes at First Baptist Church in Waterloo for decades.
“Mom was really ambitious, but masked it well,” Decareaux said. Hartrum had five children when she returned to school to earn her bachelor’s in education from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville while working full-time as a paraprofessional. Her youngest son was 14 when she finished that degree, “then she went on for her master’s.”
“She always wanted to be a teacher,” Elizabeth Hartrum said. “But what really catapulted her into special education was when David came along.” The youngest Hartrum sibling needed special education services, the daughters said.
Hartrum had a trick to doing her night-school studies.
“She’d do her homework at the Walmart parking lot!” they laughed. She would get French fries and a soda – she preferred Pepsi but the store’s McDonald’s carried Dr Pepper – and study in the parking lot.
“She tried to do it at home, in the car in the driveway,” Elizabeth Hartrum said, “But we were always interrupting her.”
Many who knew Hartrum said she was funny, quick-witted, quirky.
“She was such a nut. She would wear these, these – blue polyester pants!” Chalberg said with a laugh. “And this white sweater every day to school.”
Art Ryan, Cahokia’s superintendent, said Hartrum “never ceased to amaze me.”
“I don’t know if I ever knew someone with more challenges,” he told the nodding crowd. “But she was always about the kids.”
Longtime friend Cindy Mathews, who also worked in the district, remembered Hartrum’s peace and dedication to the children.
Hartrum went back to school the Monday after her daughter Sarah Decareaux’s husband and two sons died in a hiking accident in 2013, Mathews said.
“She was so strong ... they all have a very strong faith.”
Chalberg said, “If you were down, she would life you up.”
“She was not a holier-than-thou type of person. She was a friend.”