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Fort Mill teacher who died in fall from lake dock remembered as ‘ray of light’

By Jonathan McFadden
jmcfadden@heraldonline.com

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    Fort Mill teacher who died in fall from lake dock remembered as ‘ray of light’



TEGA CAY, S.C. Rebecca New came alive in the classroom.

She kept her students focused and knew her way around a computer.

She was a “model teacher,” one of her former professors said, and possessed a vigor educators don’t typically find in newer teachers.

After earning her master’s degree and landing a job at Gold Hill Elementary School, New found time to mentor a senior art education major at Winthrop University who was “very good, very smart, very talented, but very quiet,” said Laura Gardner, associate art professor at Winthrop.

“We gave her the information, we gave her the support,” Gardner said. “We really had to hold her feet to the fire. Rebecca and I had to really work as a team on that.”

That team was broken on Sunday when police say New fell off a Lake Wylie dock in Mecklenburg County and died after hitting a metal bar. She was 31.

Authorities said New was with friends on the dock at about 2:30 a.m. when she slipped. Police do not suspect foul play in her death but late Sunday said they were still investigating. Efforts to reach Charlotte-Mecklenburg police on Monday were unsuccessful.

On Monday, the Fort Mill School District remembered New as passionate, kind and a “ray of light.”

New taught art to students in kindergarten through fifth grade at Gold Hill for three years after a yearlong stint as an intern. In 2005, she graduated with a studio arts degree from Coastal Carolina University. She earned her master’s degree from Winthrop in 2009.

“She always smiled,” said Fort Mill, S.C., schools spokeswoman Kelly McKinney. “She was a wonderful person. She knew how to make a difference in a student or co-worker’s day … a difference every, single day.

“She was one of the most kindest and dedicated teachers,” McKinney added. “She was very much a leader” and voluntarily taught an arts class after classes dismissed.

During Gold Hill’s annual spring showcase, New made sure each of her 850 students had a piece of artwork to display, McKinney said.

Within the last several years, New’s students participated in the Arts Council of York County’s banner project, whereby students are given materials to design banners that hang on the city of Tega Cay’s lampposts, said Melanie Cooper, arts council spokeswoman.

“The best of the best are chosen to be turned in to the lamppost banners,” Cooper said.

This year, four of New’s students designed banners that are now waving in the city, she said.

“She was a ray of light … you just wanted to be around her; she just gave off that aura,” McKinney said.

At Winthrop, where New spent two years as a graduate student, she was known as a “deep” and “reflective” thinker, said Jonatha Vare, chair of curriculum and pedagogy at the university’s education department.

Vare acted as New’s adviser and called her a “conscientious student” who was intelligent and creative.

“She came with a lot of experience,” Gardner said.

New taught at a preschool before she started graduate studies in Rock Hill. Where other students might have trouble learning how to function in the classroom, New was “a natural,” Gardner said. For her, it was a “piece of cake.”

“She was an exemplary teacher,” said Seymour Simmons, a Winthrop art professor who taught New and observed her student-teaching at Gold Hill. “She came alive in the classroom. She was mature. I think she overcame some challenges in her life; I don’t know what they were” but he said “she came out the other side and was fantastic.”

Gardner and Vare both said New’s “road to her degree” wasn’t always smooth.

“To her credit, she took a little time off” from school, but “she came back and she did it,” Gardner said.

She earned her master’s in teaching secondary and K-12 education and told Gardner that she wanted to mentor students who wanted to teach art.

Gardner and Simmons said they often took students to observe New as she taught her classes at Gold Hill.

In an arts classroom, teachers are “always moving around, putting things away, washing hands,” Gardner said. “With little kids, you have to teach them how to move in a group.”

New did all that, Gardner said, “with grace.”

This summer has been rough for schools in York County.

A week ago, Heather Dobbins, an English as a second language teacher at Rock Hill’s Richmond Drive Elementary School, drowned while water tubing on the Saluda River in Pickens County.

Last month, Maryanne Galway, a 17-year employee at the Fort Mill School District who had most recently worked as an attendance clerk at Orchard Park Elementary School, drowned off the coast of Sunset Beach. She and her husband became trapped by rip currents and struggled in the water. Another man who tried to rescue the Galways also died.

Gold Hill Elementary teachers return to work on Wednesday. Students will return to classes next week.

Fort Mill School Superintendent Chuck Epps said grief counselors will be available for students and teachers “that may need that help.”

“Obviously, it’s a tragedy for the school district family, the community,” he said.

The school district, McKinney said, is a “close-knit family.”

Gold Hill’s principal, Terry Brewer, on Monday notified parents and students about the incident. Students who want to make a card for New or her family can drop it off at the school district office, where it will be displayed and later given to her parents.

New’s parents and the Foundation for Fort Mill Schools have agreed to start a scholarship fund to help students pursuing an arts career, McKinney said.

Talks about the scholarship are still in early planning stages, she said.

The Charlotte Observer and John Marks of The Fort Mill Times contributed.

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