School community grieves loss of principal Staff and parents help students cope

May 13, 1998|By Jackie Powder and Mary Gail Hare | Jackie Powder and Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Mike Farabaugh contributed to this article.

For nearly 20 years, Raymond Mathias presided over Winfield Elementary School with a gentle, hands-on style of leadership. He was a constant presence at the school -- in the classrooms, at cafeteria tables and on the playground.

Yesterday, the close-knit Winfield community of students, faculty and parents arrived at a school without Raymond Mathias. The 52-year-old educator was killed Monday when a tractor-trailer hit his car broadside near Route 26 and Woodbine Road, about a half-mile from the school.

"Ray Mathias was Winfield," said Anne Marie Mason, mother of a third-grade student at the school. "He brought strength and encouragement to this school."

In a steady rain yesterday morning, children filed into Winfield Elementary, where a school administrator stood at the door to keep reporters away from students and teachers.

Several school buses arrived half-empty. But the parking lots were full as many parents walked with their children into the one-story brick building and lingered in the classrooms. Counselors were also available to parents.

"Mr. Mathias was such a positive force in the school," said Donna McGraw, mother of a first-grade student. "He was always there at every event, even the PTA yard sale."

McGraw walked her child into the school yesterday morning.

"I didn't want her to hear it in the hall. I was worried what would happen when the children didn't hear him leading the pledge like he did every morning," she said.

Instead, the day began at Winfield as individual teachers read a prepared statement to students, informing them of Mathias' death.

"We are sad to announce the death of Mr. Mathias, who we all care about," teachers told their students. "All of us feel sadness over his loss. These feelings are normal, and it is important to talk about them."

A 12-member crisis intervention team of guidance counselors, pupil personnel workers and school psychologists was in place at the school yesterday morning to help the Winfield community get through the day.

"As crazy as it may sound, the most important thing with kids is to be as consistent as you can be," said Dorothy Mangle, director of elementary schools.

"The staff seemed to come into the building determined they were going to keep themselves under control," Mangle said. "You could just see they were focused on helping the children."

As planned, the third-grade students at Winfield took the Maryland State Performance Assessment Program tests, which are being given statewide.

"I think the children were really geared up for the test," said guidance counselor Angela Nunnelly. "Some students were told, your best; that's what Ray would want.' "

The crisis team set up stations throughout the school, where psychologists and counselors were available to help students.

Nunnelly said teachers sent about 150 pupils at the school of 602 to talk to members of the crisis intervention team.

Most students brought up memories of Mr. Mathias.

"I had a lot of students who said they will miss hearing him walk down the halls with his keys, or coming in the cafeteria and talking with them at the tables, and they'll miss him at recess time," Nunnelly said.

Winfield began his education career in 1973 as a fifth-grade teacher at Eldersburg Elementary School. He joined the staff of Winfield Elementary in 1980 as an assistant principal; he became principal a year later.

"He spent his whole career here and had deep roots in the system," said Mangle.

Throughout the day, crisis team members watched for students and staff who seemed to be having a hard time in class.

Mangle said she spotted one boy who appeared to be extremely upset. "He was crying and he couldn't even get his backpack and coat off because he was shaking," she said.

Mangle walked and talked with the boy through the school's wide circular corridors, and by the time they had completed the circle he felt ready to go to class.

"The children will really miss Mr. Mathias," said Sherri Hain, the mother of a second-grader. "He was always in the hallways and (( the cafeteria, often eating lunch with the children."

Trooper Robert Stryjewski of the Westminster state police barracks said skid marks at the scene of the accident indicated that Robert Emerson, the driver of the tractor-trailer, braked after the impact with Mathias' Pontiac.

Mathias, who was dead at the scene after his Pontiac Grand Am was knocked into a metal light pole, was wearing a seat belt, the trooper said.

Emerson, 44, of Bear, Del., is an independent trucker, meaning he owns his rig, Stryjewski said.

He was hauling drywall and his trip log appeared in perfect order, the trooper said, meaning that there was no evidence that fatigue may have contributed to the accident.

Neither alcohol nor drugs appeared to be a factor in the accident, Stryjewski said.

The Carroll County state's attorney's office is investigating the accident to determine whether any charges should be filed.

At the school, staff members say they're certain the most difficult days are ahead -- the fifth-grade graduation, when Mr. Mathias always gave a pep talk to the future middle-schoolers, the annual play day and holidays.

"This is just the beginning," said Nunnelly. "But in spite of everything, there was peace that prevailed in the building. A great peace has been here all day and we were walking in it."

Mathias family members declined to comment yesterday. They have asked for memorial donations in his name to the school, at 4401 Salem Bottom Road, Westminster 21157.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Covenant of Grace Presbyterian Church in Reisterstown.

He is survived by his wife, Terry; his mother, Margaret Mathias; a son, Chad Raymond, and a daughter, Heather Leigh.

Pub Date: 5/13/98

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