Pat Speer 'was everyone's favorite teacher'

Pat Speer ... retired art teacher dies in Nebraska - Friday Harbor High School
Pat Speer ... retired art teacher dies in Nebraska
— image credit: Friday Harbor High School

Retired Friday Harbor High School art teacher Pat Speer died in her sleep Sunday evening in her brother's home in Plattsmouth, Neb. She was 62.

Speer retired from teaching in June after a 35-year career in the San Juan Island School District, beginning in September 1973.

Superintendent Michael Soltman met with high school faculty and staff Tuesday morning. “We are all saddened to hear of her passing on," he said in a press release. "Patricia was loved by so many students and families for her teaching, kindness and ability to connect so well with students. Our faculty and staff have lost a dear friend and member of our school family.”

Plans for celebrating Speer’s life will be made over the next few days, Soltman said.

Speer started working for San Juan schools when she was 27, and devoted her life to inspiring students and utilizing art as a means for developing character, self-confidence and desire to learn.

“Her peaceful demeanor allowed students' artistic ability to flow was significant,” said Liz Slusher, a long-time friend and former student of Speer. Slusher, a 1988 graduate of Friday Harbor High School, is a custodian at Skagit Valley College. Speer taught Slusher's children as well.

Holly Schutza, a 1991 graduate of Friday Harbor High School, said Speer connected with students who lacked guidance and direction from home. “She was a teacher of great compassion."

Head Start Director Sarah Werling, a 2002 Friday Harbor High School graduate, said, “Ms. Speer was that teacher that greeted her students with a smile upon her face and kindness in her heart ... Although her passing is a shock to us all, her kind and gentle spirit will remain within our community and with the history of FHHS."

Speer was known for her ability to inspire struggling students. Tracy Roberson, Class of 1990, remembers Speer's ability to mentor students. Art was a means for keeping students interested in school, she said.

Former student Stacey Rude said Speer was much more than an art teacher. She helped develop Rude's self-confidence by giving her the opportunity to teach a mentally challenged student who needed one-on-one attention.

Rude said she will never forget the experience Speer offered her long ago. “It was the most life-changing experience I've ever had.”

Ian Gatley, a retired art professor at Eastern Oregon University who frequented shared his expertise and talent with Speer's students, called Speer “a superb teacher” and a "fine artist in her own right.”

Speer was known for pencil drawings, including the hilarious drawing, “Florence Nightinfish,” an absurd image of a half-human, half-fish. “She had a one-of-a-kind sense of humor that never failed her.”

Journal columnist Howard Schonberger said Speer was the No. 1 supporter of a local cooperative art gallery, the now-defunct Sunshine Art Gallery. Schonberger, a director of the gallery for 20 years, remembers her participation in the student art show displayed in the gallery on Spring Street and Nichols Street.

Close friend Andrea Simmons, a ceramic artist and psychotherapist, said a high percentage of Speer's students went on to art college throughout the years.

Simmons is past president and founder of the Visual Arts Museum of San Juan County, a campaign to build an accredited museum on the islands. Speer was instrumental in the beginning stages of the museum campaign, in 2002. As a committee member, she was a proponent of developing art displays locally with George Johnson, Stewart Luckman and Marsha Rachlin.

The Visual Arts Museum of San Juan County organized art presentations in Friday Harbor and developed a relationship with The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. The museum merged with Westcott Bay Institute in July. Both organizations will work together to build an accredited arts museum in the county.

In response to Speer's many years of service, Simmons said she had a huge influence on young people and the community at large. Remembering dining out with her friend Pat, she said, “We couldn't get through a meal without someone coming up and sharing what her class met to them.”

Friday Harbor High School Principal Fred Woods said his staff is considering ways of memorializing Speer.

Junior Emma Harley, junior Tristan Wood and sophomore Sam Asher expressed their thoughts on the passing of their beloved teacher: "Ms. Speer was always there to give us advice even when she didn't need to. She was everyone's favorite teacher and had a passion for art that everyone will remember.”

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