Bradenton school in mourning over loss of assistant principal

rdymond@bradenton.comMarch 19, 2013 

MANATEE -- Students wrote heartfelt cards to express their intense feelings. School staff simply cried.

The tragic death of assistant principal Wendy Suarez cast a shroud of emotion over Jessie P. Miller Elementary School Monday.

Mrs. Suarez, 41, who became an assistant principal at Miller in January, 2011, died at 9:40 p.m. Friday when she was walking across State Road 70 about eight miles east of Okeechobee and was hit by a 2003 Dodge Neon, according to a Florida Highway Patrol report.

Mrs. Suarez's husband, Frank, said Monday his wife was traveling to visit her brother near Jupiter and may have missed a turn-off on S.R. 70 then stopped to find a landmark to tell her brother so he could guide her in.

"Perhaps her brother had said, 'Tell me where you are so I can Google you," Suarez said.

The police report states that Mrs. Suarez walked into the path of the Neon, which was driven by a 21-year-old Okeechobee man.

The motorist was unable to see Mrs. Suarez until the last second as she was wearing dark clothing, the report states. The driver attempted to take evasive actions by applying the brake and steering to the left, but the right front of the vehicle struck the victim, the report states.

No charges have been filed in the case, the report adds.

Funeral arrangements and a Celebration of Life service were in the planning stages Monday, Suarez said.

Monday was a rough day at Miller

At 7 a.m. Monday, Miller Elementary Principal Barry Dunn met with his crisis team.

"It was hard to look at those faces through my own puffy eyes," Dunn said.

Dunn instructed his teachers to spend the first hour Monday having a conversation with students about expressing feelings, like loss. Many children made cards for Mrs. Suarez that stated, "I'm sorry."

"I told the teachers to talk about it as long as it takes," Dunn said. "I walked the school a few hours later and there was teaching and learning going on."

Dunn called Mrs. Suarez his "right arm."

Mrs. Suarez was hired by the Manatee County School District in 2000 and began her career as a counselor at Harllee Middle. She moved to Tillman Elementary and became an assistant principal there. She was an assistant principal at Daughtry, Palmetto and, serving both part-time in 2009, Witt and Braden River elementaries, according to school district records.

Finally, she landed at Miller, where, colleagues said, she had finally found a home.

"The two of us worked side by side," Dunn said. "There was no role playing. She helped me. I trusted her decisions. She knew my vision. If I put something on her plate, I knew it would get done."

Mrs. Suarez met Witt Principal Myra Russell in 2009 and told friends Russell was everything she aspired toward.

"Everytime Wendy got in a situation with a student, parent or even me, she would say, 'How would Myra Russell handle this?'" Frank Suarez said. "She wanted to soak in as much of Myra as she could."

Russell said Monday she admired how Mrs. Suarez handled dividing her time between Witt and Braden River during the odd arrangement in 2009.

"I asked her what her strengths were and she said data, computer literacy and professional development," Russell said. "Then I asked her what she thought were weaknesses were and those were things I felt were my strengths. We complemented each other. We gelled."

Russell and Mrs. Suarez became friends, met for breakfast and touched base often by phone.

It was at Miller that Suarez finally acquired a home and a family, said Julie Gierhart, a Miller ESE teacher.

"Her hobby was family and friends and she was dedicated to both," Gierhart said. "The family feeling you get at Miller is tremendous. The strength of our staff is incredible. I think she felt that and was happy she was with us."

"When she went to Miller I said, 'Listen Wendy, this is going to give you a home,' " Russell said. "'This is good stuff,' I told her. And she did find a home there working with Mr. Dunn. This is a tragedy."

Frank Suarez's miracle bride

Frank Suarez calls Mrs. Suarez his miracle bride because he had given up on line dating but a friend urged him to try the site Plenty of Fish one more time in 2007.

Friends of Mrs. Suarez, then Ms. Laster, urged her to do the same.

Suarez, 42, a service writer at Sunset Subaru in Sarasota, logged in that last time and the first thing he saw was Laster's face.

"I sent a message that said, 'Hello, my name is Frank, let me know if you want to chat,'" Suarez said Monday. "Not a second later, I mean I no sooner lifted my finger off the enter button, I was getting an incoming message from her saying, 'Hello my name is Wendy, let me know if you want to chat.' We had sent our messages simultaneously."

They were married two years later, on Nov. 27, 2009.

"There is no words to describe her personality," Suarez said. "Joy, smiles, always wanting to help people. She would pick up a stray cat or dog in a heartbeat. She was very loving."

Mrs. Suarez reinvented herself

When they met, Wendy Laster weighed nearly 200 pounds and Frank Suarez weighed nearly 300, Frank Suarez said.

"We decided together to get fit," Suarez said.

They juiced their three daily meals, a concoction they called "Mean Green," which consisted of kale, celery, apples, cucumbers, lemon and ginger in a juicer.

It not only got the Suarezes thin, it rubbed off on others, including Mrs. Suarez's principal, Barry Dunn.

Dunn lost 70 pounds juicing and exercising. Mrs. Suarez lost 55 pounds in three and a half months. Frank Suarez lost 100 pounds in five and a half months.

Mrs. Suarez became an accomplished runner. A month ago, Mrs. Suarez ran the St. Petersburg Rock and Roll Half Marathon in two hours and 29 minutes. Her goal was two hours and 45 minutes. Frank Suarez paced her. They held hands during the run.

Frank Suarez and others hope that a 5K or half marathon race will one day be named in Mrs. Suarez's honor. She was planning to run the Nike All-Women's Marathon in Washington D.C. in May.

"We were in the shape of our lives," Frank Suarez said.

Others also were struck that Mrs. Suarez's life ended at the moment when it was in full gear.

"She was just blossoming personally, mentally, physically and professionally," Russell said.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686, or tweet @RichardDymond

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