ELYRIA — Before President George W. Bush bested John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, former Windsor Elementary School teacher Denise Hess wanted students to get more than just a textbook-level understanding of the country’s election process.
So, the social studies teacher staged a mock presidential election for all 420 of the school’s students.
For Hess, who died September 2016, life — especially government life — was best learned up close and personal. In the spring, five Elyria middle school students will take that love of learning with them to Washington. D.C., as the first recipients of the Denise Hess Scholarship Fund.
“Mrs. Hess saw the best in everyone and never gave up on any of us,” former student Hannah Smalley said. “I wanted to be a history teacher when I was younger because she was so inspiring.”
Named in honor of the beloved teacher, the scholarship awards eighth-grade students who were past students of Hess at Windsor with between $150 and $200 to offset the cost of the trip, which runs students about $550 each.
The scholarship program will continue until every class that had Hess at Windsor up until her last year of teaching during the 2015-16 school year are eighth-grade students and eligible to attend the annual pilgrimage to the nation’s capital.
“She was a very passionate social studies teacher and we felt helping students get to Washington, D.C., was a perfect way to honor her,” said Michelle Buga, a district employee who served on the selection committee along with Carrie Ziegman, Marcia Heckenberg, Laura Chachko and Mary Karlovec. Money was raised to fund the scholarships through pretzel sales, T-shirt sales and private donations.
For students — the recipients are Jacob Clayton, Emma Kocsis, Brooke Lesko, Hannah Smalley and Tiana Valles — the scholarship offered them the opportunity to reminisce about a teacher who loved her job.
“She was really funny and always made us laugh,” said 14-year-old Tiana. “I remember one day I had a bad day and she was right there ready to make me happy.”
Elyria High School Principal Tim Brown, who worked with Hess at Windsor, said the teacher is deeply missed.
“She just had this passion and love for social studies and citizenry that she wanted to share with students,” he said. “One of the last things she did as a teacher was to take students on a walking tour of Elyria to show off city landmarks. For her, it was all about promoting good citizenship no matter where you were.”
Hess started the annual Windsor Elementary School Veterans Day Celebration several years ago, and the tradition of honoring veterans with an all-school assembly continues today.
“For Denise, Veterans Day was the holiday,” Karlovec said. “She really felt that students needed to understand the significance of this day.”
Jacob Clayton said he will always remember Hess.
“She said something that just stuck with me,” he said. “She said, ‘Be yourself’ and ‘Don’t let anyone tell you about who you are.’”