Energetic, bold, innovative, whirlwind, childlike, kooky — all describe Lesley Jankausky, the Evergreen Middle School science teacher killed in a car accident on Dec. 22.
Teachers, administrators, and current and former students who spoke of Jankausky, called “Ms. J” by students and simply “J” by friends and colleagues, told anecdotes and paid tribute to her at a memorial service Jan. 9 at the school. The words of the speakers and the attendance by hundreds spoke of her memorable personality and her commitment to teaching.
Jankausky, 42, was born and raised outside Chicago. She had an undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois and a master’s degree from Roosevelt University. She had worked as a lab manager before turning to teaching. She taught eighth-grade science at Evergreen Middle School for 10 years and was the school’s science department manager.
She was killed on Interstate 80 in Nebraska on her way to visit family in Chicago for the holidays.
EMS principal Kristopher Schuh told the crowd in the school gym of his first staff meeting with the faculty after he was appointed principal. He gave some background about himself, mentioning that he was from Green Bay, Wis. In the quiet room, he heard someone shout, “Boooo.” It was J voicing her displeasure at Schuh’s football team of choice, the Green Bay Packers.
“You see,” Schuh said, “J was a huge (Chicago) Bears fan. That was my introduction to J. I was booed at my first staff meeting.”
In addition to being a Bears fan, Ms. J was a Beatles fan; a hater of the Chicago Cubs baseball team; a lover of shopping, clothes and shoes; someone who loved to talk and to argue. But most of all she loved to teach and to be with her students.
Students wrote about their memories on large pieces of paper taped to the walls of the gymnasium:
“I remember when Ms. J got up on the counter and modeled her new boots with peace signs on them,” one student wrote.
Another wrote, “I loved how she would have a whole white board dedicated to cheesy jokes and ‘tasty nuggets of joy.’ ” The nuggets were fun facts on all sorts of topics.
Current and former students called her someone you could talk to, be safe with, have fun with — and still learn about science. She attended sporting events, graduations and other functions they were involved in.
“She taught us to dream big and work hard,” said former student Cath Philbin. “She made a lasting difference in our lives.”
“She was the most animated hands-on teacher I’ve ever had,” said current student Lindsay Vinarcsik.
Several mentioned her explanation of density, which is defined as mass divided by volume, or “m over v.” Jankausky told students that density was like a heart because when you write the m over the v, they look like a heart.
Many spoke of her Pez candy-dispenser collection, her foam-finger collection and her action figures, especially a Mr. T doll from the 1980s TV show “The A Team.” She took Mr. T with her on many excursions and had photos to prove it.
In fact, she hiked Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa this past summer with Mr. T by her side.
When she returned, Ms. J talked a lot about an Ethiopian man who was her porter on the trip. She had wanted to find a way to help him learn better English so he could have a better life.
To that end, a memorial fund has been set up in her honor. Contributions may be made to Evergreen National Bank for the Lesley Jankausky Africa Education Fund, P.O. Box 2020, Evergreen, CO 80437.
As a tribute to Ms. J, a cabinet is being built by technology education teacher Chet Andes to house her Pez candy-dispenser collection. It will be kept in a science classroom as a memorial to her.
Two of Ms. J’s family, younger sister Stacey Jankausky and father Bob Jankausky, attended the memorial and were overwhelmed by the outpouring of love from those who knew her.
“You have proven she made a difference,” Stacey said to those attending the service. “I wish she would have known how much of a difference she made in all of your lives.”