ST. PETE BEACH — For 45 years, Janet McCaffrey taught all grades at Gulf Beaches Elementary School and served as its backup administrator. She was a natural, able to manage students and sometimes the whole school with calm efficiency, seldom raising her voice.
Ms. McCaffrey died May 27 of several ailments, including heart trouble and diabetes. She was 76. Six days later, Gulf Beaches Elementary closed its doors for good because of declining enrollment.
"Everything has to have a constant," said former colleague Paulette Latimer, 59, a 25-year teacher at Gulf Beaches, now retired. "In that building, she was the constant."
She was the constant in her family as well — in part because she knew herself. Growing up in Newark, N.J., as the daughter of two Irish immigrants, she faced her first crisis when her mother, a teacher, died when Ms. McCaffrey was 18.
Friends offered to come stay with her. She turned them down, preferring to absorb the grief without a buffer.
While attending the University of Florida, a man she had dated proposed marriage. He wasn't the right one, she said.
She taught at Gulf Beaches, which was created in 1950 to accommodate growth. She developed traditions: square dancing if classes did all their work; carving the turkey at the school's annual fish broil; reading a book with her fourth-graders — The Lion's Paw, a Florida story about children who survive together at sea.
When her sister needed her, she was there. Joy Connolly, also a teacher, was divorced in 1971. The sisters, who lived two blocks apart in the Tyrone area, ate dinner together. "It wasn't the typical family setup, but it was very consistent and stable and nurturing," said Patrick Connolly, 51, Ms. McCaffrey's nephew.
She didn't regret not marrying. She had never found the right person. Besides, she had more time this way for her extended family and students.
Ms. McCaffrey taught at Gulf Beaches until the late 1990s, then worked for the city at the Pier and at Sunken Gardens.
She was a fighter throughout. When her hair turned prematurely gray in her 30s, she accepted it for about a decade — then began dyeing her hair.
When osteoporosis crippled her, she bought a purple cane with emblazoned flowers.
And when a recent heart attack limited her breathing, she weaned herself from a ventilator. "She wanted off that machine so she could die on her own terms," said her nephew, who is also a teacher.
A crowd of Gulf Beaches teachers and administrators gathered May 27 at the Hurricane Lounge. It was the annual goodbye party, not only for the school year, but for the school itself. Retired teachers showed up. So did ex-principals. Some expressed surprise not to see Ms. McCaffrey there.
"People were asking where she was," Latimer said.
Ms. McCaffrey was lying in a bed at Palms of Pasadena Hospital. She died at 10:30 p.m., just as her colleagues were saying bittersweet goodbyes.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or email@example.com.