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Longtime educator earned respect as kind and selfless innovator

Longtime educator earned respect as kind and selfless innovator

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Karen Smith’s former colleagues remember the longtime Southington school administrator fondly.

The Cheshire resident died late last month after a lengthy battle with ovarian cancer. Colleagues say her 29 years as an administrator in Southington will not soon be forgotten and that she positively impacted thousands of students during her tenure.

Smith began as a math teacher/tutor at Kennedy Middle School in the 1980s and served as principal of both Strong and Derynoski elementary schools during the period from 1992 to 2011. She then served as assistant superintendent from 2011 to 2015, which included a stint as acting superintendent.

Smith had previously served as an assistant principal in Manchester from 1990 to 1992.

She was hired as principal in Southington the same day Angelo Coppola was brought aboard as assistant superintendent in Southington.

“She was very active with us,” Coppola said. “She was instrumental in making big important changes to things we needed fixed. You could always count on her.”

Coppola, who retired in 2004, said Smith was especially focused on improving reading and language arts at her school.

“She was a kind person, an extrovert,” Coppola said. “People liked being around her because of her sparkling personality. People would take to her right away. She did a lot of innovative things and encouraged and motivated people.”

Longtime Southington Board of Education member David Derynoski was on the board when Smith was first hired.

“She put 150 percent into everything she did and it showed,” Derynoski said. “She was exemplary. Her personality, focus, dedication and knowledge were impeccable. To find all of those traits in one person is a rare commodity. She earned respect from everyone she came across.”

At the school board meeting in 2011 when Smith was named the new assistant superintendent, she was given a standing ovation from those in attendance. Smith would still return to the elementary schools after her cancer diagnosis to volunteer.

Smith died May 21 at CT Hospice in Branford. Karen and Don Smith II were married in 1970, raised three children in Cheshire and have four grandchildren.

Smith was heavily involved in the Cheshire community. While she was raising her three children she served for eight years on Cheshire's Board of Education and worked part-time at a nursery school.

Smith received all of her degrees at Central Connecticut State University. Her highest degree was a six-year administrative degree.

She began her teaching career as an elementary school teacher in Clinton and also worked as an educator in New Jersey.

One of Smith’s crowning professional achievements was being named the 2002 Connecticut National Distinguished Principal.

Former Southington High Athletic Director Bob Lehr said Smith was a “great lady.”

“Karen Smith was one of my favorite people in the world,” Lehr said. “She was bright, caring, personable and she had a great sense of humor. When a person was in her presence, she made that person feel that he/she was the most important person in the world. I suppose her greatest quality, at least in my estimation, was her ability to listen, I mean genuinely listen.”

Smith’s successor as Southington assistant superintendent Steve Madancy said Smith was charming, warm and friendly.

“She was a mentor to me and a friend to everyone,” Madancy said. “If you ever met her, you felt like her best friend. She was a quick thinker and was in your corner no matter what.”

Southington school board member Zaya G. Oshana first met Smith at a Planning & Zoning meeting for a proposed new parking lot at the Southington Library, across the street from Derynoski Elementary School.

“She spoke passionately about how the parking lot would affect the students and the parents,” Oshana said. “She spoke from the heart. I’m a better person just to have known Karen Smith. I was so saddened to hear about her passing. Southington was so lucky to have her. Her impact here will go on for generations.”

Friends Betty Lutz and Sally Kamerbeek gave the graveside eulogy for Smith. Lutz is a retired Kelley Elementary School principal and Kamerbeek is a retired South End and Hatton principal.

“Sally and I attended Karen’s grave side on Karen’s wishes,” Lutz said. “I spoke about how Karen is a warrior. As a warrior, she had different weapons, so to speak. She was armed with her passion for education, love, red lipstick and her ‘Children’s First’ pin.”

“She was a warrior in her battle against cancer,” Lutz said. “She fought against it with her family, her cane, surgery and mediation. She was a warrior the entire way.”

Lutz said one aspect of Smith’s legacy’s is implementing all-day kindergarten in Southington. Smith had a passion for helping the underdogs. Following Smith’s diagnosis, she still volunteered for five years at Southington Alta, alternative education for high school students in town. 

“They would call her grandma,” Lutz said of the Alta students. “She kept saying she wanted to get back to see them. They helped keep her going. She was a wonderful grandmother. Usually, a text message from her started with a picture of her grandchildren.”

As Derynoski principal, Smith sits with students at lunch in 2010. | File photo
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