CLEARWATER — The call came early Tuesday to principal Lisa Bultmann's office at Plumb Elementary School. It was the Clearwater police on the phone, and the news could not have been worse.
One of her teachers was dead.
"At first we were in shock and didn't believe it," Bultmann said.
She didn't have a choice. It was time to notify others that Jackie Fort, an 18-year teaching veteran, had died at 42.
Mrs. Fort, a former student at Plumb and mother of two, was one of those teachers who made a difference. She used sassy humor and a coach's challenging ways to get the most out of her fifth-grade students. For many years, she led the school's multicultural committee, putting on skits and songs during Black History Month.
Such was her impact, former students often returned to Plumb to tell her about their successes.
"I have students who are in high school or college," said Barbara Gurian, a second-grade teacher at Plumb. "They will come back and say, 'Oh, I'm so glad to see you! But I want to rush off to see my favorite teacher, who was Mrs. Fort.' "
The Clearwater native graduated from Clearwater High and Auburn University before returning to Plumb in the early 1990s, where she taught fifth-grade math, science and social studies.
"She taught through building relationships with kids, and they would do anything for her," Bultmann said.
For the last 12 years, Mrs. Fort taught as half of a fifth-grade team with Sue Keller, who teaches reading, writing and computer science. In the morning each taught 20 students, who switched to the other class at midday.
"We used to tease each other that we were like a longtime married couple," said Keller, 60. "We could finish each other's sentences. When one of us would start with a child, the other one would finish. I would correct their behavior, and they would say, 'I know. Mrs. Fort already told me.' "
A bright-eyed teacher with a rich voice and a full laugh, Mrs. Fort used a variety of ways to motivate her students, Keller said.
"She would challenge them. She would say, 'You can do better. I know you can do better.' "
Mrs. Fort decorated her walls with antibullying messages and posters of Denzel Washington. In one, he is reading a book. Another is an image of the actor's fifth-grade report card.
They called her "the Queen" because — well, she acted like one. Students made her tiaras in art class with pasted jewels and gold ribbon. In return, Mrs. Fort tapped good students on the head with a wooden scepter when she wanted to praise them.
A family member discovered Mrs. Fort unresponsive in bed early Tuesday and called authorities — who called the school at 6:45 a.m.
By 7:10 a.m., the school's crisis team had arrived. Bultmann told Keller, then told other teachers. All were dismayed.
"I've never heard so many wails before," said Gurian, 55.
At 8:20 a.m., when Mrs. Fort's class would have started, it was time to tell the kids.
"The principal told them," Keller said. "Some gasped. Some of them started to cry. Some of them sat there and looked blankly. For most of them, this is their first experience with death."
The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office said that no autopsy will be performed, an indication that the death is believed to be the result of natural causes.
She leaves behind a daughter, Chloe, a first-grader at Plumb, and Reggie, who is in middle school.
The crisis team left after Wednesday, and classes continue. A substitute will handle Mrs. Fort's classes for the next two weeks. As colleagues and students mourn her loss, they are also remembering a teacher who attended sporting events because her students were playing, had lunch with their families and visited their homes over Christmas break.
They push on with their work, knowing the Queen would have it no other way.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.