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Sonora Elementary School loses teacher to leukemia

Last week was a rough one at Sonora Elementary School as teachers, students and others mourned the loss of seventh-grade teacher Susan Ellen “Sue” Walter.

A memorial service has been scheduled for noon on March 18 in the school gymnasium.

Mrs. Walter went home from school feeling like she had the flu on Wednesday, Feb. 1,  ended up being transferred from Sonora Regional Medical Center to the University of San Francisco Medical Center, and died on Friday, Feb. 3, of complications caused by previously undiagnosed leukemia.

 “It was absolutely shocking,” said school coach and athletic director Karen Sinclair said. “We were all devastated.”

Sinclair, along with Principal Pam Vlach, Counselor Kerri McCluskey and psychologist Casey Donohue, contacted all the teachers and support staff as soon as they heard about it, and on Monday morning they gathered all the seventh and eighth grade students together to tell them.

“I’ve never heard 170 kids be so quiet,” she said. ‘“We split them into groups to talk and let them write things on a poster. Fifteen or 20 students needed additional counseling, which was handled privately as needed, and we just tried to get through the week.”

The staff and retired staff members got together Thursday at a private location to share what Sinclair called a good cry.

“She’ll be so missed,” said teacher Mary Johnson. “This was hard on the teachers.”

Sinclair described Mrs. Walter as someone who always made people laugh with her dry sense of humor.

Teacher Kelli O’Brien said Mrs. Walter had an amazing love of learning and a passion to ensure students received all they could receive. She taught other teachers how to make sure the curriculum was molded to fit everyone’s needs, from the most gifted to those who struggle to learn.

Retired Sonora Elementary School teacher Diane Mifflin called Mrs. Walter a brilliant woman who loved teaching and learning, a good friend and a mentor for other teachers.

“She was one of those people who are tolerant of others,” she said, “and she always talked about people in positive ways.”

Librarian Louise Steuben said Mrs. Walter was the 2011 secretary of Friends of the Library and was active in planning the annual American Association of University Women’s House Tour.

Susan Walter was born Sept. 1, 1951, in western Pennsylvania, the third of William and Alice Walters’ four children.

She graduated from Freeport High School in Freeport, Pa., as class valedictorian. She was also a band member, editor of the school newspaper, and editor of the high school yearbook.

She was awarded a scholarship to the University of Chicago, but moved to Thailand prior to finishing her degree to be near her first husband during the Vietnam War. She had her first child, Joel Patrick Erb, while studying childhood development at the University of Arizona and Clarion State University, eventually receiving her bachelor’s degree from California State University, Northridge.

She was certified as a Waldorf teacher at Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks and taught in Waldorf schools in Marin County and Jamestown.

Having made Sonora her home, she then obtained her public-school teaching credential and taught at Twain Harte Elementary school until being hired at Sonora Elementary Schools on Aug. 15, 1996.

She earned a master’s degree in child psychology in the late 1970s and more recently earned a second master’s degree in educational administration. She specialized in teaching technology, math and science and at times served as a school administrator.

Her interests included knitting and sewing, all kinds of technology, growing plants, animals, nutrition and herbal healing, medication, and traveling.

She recently made a trip to Paris with her sister, Patti, to celebrate her 60th birthday and has traveled to Russia and Scotland.

She planned to retire soon and move to Sacramento to be closer to her new granddaughter, Ingrid-Elise Erb.

Her husband, Terry Campbell, taught at Summerville High School until he died four years ago. She was also preceeded in death by her stepson, Scott Campbell, who died three years ago.

Mrs. Walter is survived by her three siblings, Patricia Louise Ray, an attorney teaching college classes in Los Angeles; Julie Alice Lata, an educator in the field of autism, teaching university classes at the University of Missouri, and William Jeffrey Walter, who works for IBM in Florida; her daughter, Lilly Campbell, of Sonora; son, Joel Patrick Erb, an attorney in private practice in Sacramento; and 6-week-old granddaughter, Ingrid-Elise Erb, of Sacramento; stepson, Brett Campbell, of Long Beach; and step-grandchildren, Jeffrey and Jamie Campbell, of Long Beach, and Sam Campbell, of Covina.

Pacific Interment Mortuary in San Francisco handled initial arrangements.

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