DRACUT -- Cancer took the life of former Superintendent of Schools Elaine Espindle on Monday.
But the disease could not touch Espindle's dual legacy, as a driven educator, utterly committed to improving the academic and life experiences of Dracut public-school students in the schoolhouse and beyond, and as a devoted family woman, who juggled her demanding career with providing the most loving motherly care and guidance imaginable, said loved ones and co-workers who knew her best.
Espindle, 65, of Dracut, died Monday morning surrounded by loved ones, including her husband of 39 years, Leo, and their four children.
"She was the best mom ... my role model, as well as a role model to many of the adults she worked with," said Espindle's eldest daughter, Emily Danis, of Lincoln, R.I., who is also an educator.
"My mom was a master juggler, raising a family while maintaining a prominent and demanding full-time career," Danis said. "As young children, we were unaware she had all these balls in the air. We all thought we were her one and only. There was always dinner on the table at 5 o'clock."
Espindle served as Dracut's schools chief from 1998 to 2008, then accepted an appointment as interim superintendent in 2009. During her decade-long tenure, she oversaw every detail of construction of Lakeview Junior High School, including the library that was named in her honor in a ceremony she attended on Nov. 24.
It was Espindle's final public appearance and her happiest career highlight before her health deteriorated rapidly in her final days, Danis said.
"She looked great, and she was so happy that day," she said. "It was really important to her. She couldn't talk enough about it after."
At the dedication, a series of speakers -- including current Superintendent of Schools Steven Stone, School Committee Chairman Michael McNamara, former Englesby Intermediate School Principal Robert Young, former Lakeview Junior High Principal Theresa Rogers and the district's supervisor of buildings and grounds, Andy Graham -- personally thanked Espindle for working harder than anyone to enhance the quality, standards, expectations and achievements of Dracut schoolchildren for generations to come.
"She always reminded me that we are going to run this school system for the children and not for the adults," Graham said at the library dedication. "After a while, you could see the results. We put students at Harvard, MIT, at West Point, the Air Force Academy, Brown University, and the list goes on. She did that through her efforts and the people she hired."
Praising Espindle's ability to raise standards, McNamara, who is also a former principal at the Greenmont Elementary School, said he learned a lot from her in the short year or two they worked together.
"We can laugh now, but those of us who worked with her know it wasn't always a party," McNamara said. "She was very tough. We're all better off for it."
A piece of advice Espindle frequently gave her principals is closely tied to the superintendent's legacy, Rogers said.
"(The) advice Mrs. Espindle gave me on several occasions was, 'Bar the schoolhouse door, Terry," Rogers recalled. "It reminded me that an educator's first responsibility is to their students, their education, their safety, their well-being. ... That is something that Elaine Espindle always remembered during her service to this community, and it is perhaps her most important legacy."
Espindle was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in March 2009. Danis said after her mother underwent intensive chemotherapy and drug treatments for a few years, the cancer was believed to be in remission for about a year.
When it returned, however, it had spread to her stomach, lungs and throughout her body -- to the extent, Graham said she told him, that she was no longer a candidate for chemotherapy.
Espindle informed Graham this fall, after the School Committee had unanimously voted to name the Lakeview library after her. Graham said she asked him to schedule the dedication "sooner rather that later, because she knew she didn't have much time left."
Graham, 63, in his 40 years of service to the town and its schools, said he has "seen a lot of people come and go, but none more memorable than Mrs. Espindle."
"She was only 65 -- still young, as far as I'm concerned," he added.
Graham referred to the junior high school as "the house that Elaine built." He said Espindle was also instrumental in getting the renovation project at the new Dracut High School approved.
"Mrs. Espindle's efforts and her motivation took us through a year of challenges with the state building authority and meetings upon meetings that we went through," he said. "The effort she put in was relentless, dauntless, and she succeeded. That building over there, we hope, will last like the other one did, for another 60 years, and our children will receive more technology, upgraded classrooms, and they'll compete out in the open market when they graduate for better colleges and better jobs.
"We always want to remember her for that, and thank her for that."
A 1966 graduate of Saugus High School, Espindle earned a bachelor's degree from Salem State College and master's degrees in teaching English and administration. In 25 years before coming to Dracut, she was an English teacher and chairman of the English Department at Peabody High School, and worked her way through the ranks to become Peabody's Interim superintendent.
She received the Outstanding Educator Award in 1970 and 1979. She also served on the Saugus School Committee from 1973 to 1979.
Espindle was extremely loving and close to her family members, and "passionate and proud" of her children's and five grandchildren's activities and accomplishments, Danis said. She enjoyed spending summers with the family in New Hampshire and playing tennis.
Funeral arrangements are being handled by the Bisbee-Porcella Funeral Home of Saugus. The funeral service is scheduled for Saturday at 10 a.m., in St. John's Episcopal Church in Saugus. In lieu of flowers, family members suggested that memorial contributions be made to the Elaine A. Espindle Educational Fund, P.O. Box 484, Lincoln, R.I., 02865.
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