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 at Jessie P. Miller Elementary School on Monday.
Suarez, 41, died around 8 p.m. Friday night when she was struck by a car as she stood on or near State Road 70 about 10 miles east of Jupiter, where she was heading to visit her brother, according to her husband, Frank Suarez.
“She may have been distracted while driving and passed the right hand turn toward Jupiter,” Suarez said. “She ended up 10 or 11 miles east and the only thing out there was a BP gas station. She pulled in, hung up the phone with her sister, and called her brother to get help.”
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Suarez can only speculate what happened from there. Perhaps his wife walked to see a street sign in order to tell her brother where she was so he could use Google map, or maybe with her heart for strays, she saw a cat or dog on the road, Suarez said.
What is known is that she was struck by a vehicle and killed, Suarez said.
“I don’t know if she saw the car or crossed the street or misjudged the distance or the rate of speed,” Suarez said. “The Florida Highway Patrol trooper said there was no foul play. From what I understand, the young couple driving the car that hit her were crying. There was no alcohol involved. They weren’t speeding. There were no skid marks. The state trooper said the driver was coming down the road and suddenly, Wendy was there and he couldn’t avoid her.”
The life taken at that moment was not only Frank Suarez’s “miracle” bride, whom he wed on Black Friday, Nov. 27, 2009, but a woman who inspired many with the way she reinvented herself and the way she achieved results as an educator, family and colleagues said Monday.
Frank Suarez calls Wendy Suarez his miracle bride because he had given up on online dating but a friend urged him to try Plenty of Fish one more time in 2007.
Wendy’s friends urged her to do the same.
Frank Suarez, 42, a service writer at Sunset Subaru in Sarasota, logged in that last time and the first thing he saw was Wendy 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 latter, I mean I no sooner then I 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.’"
The couple met and within three or four months, were living together. Two years later, they married.
“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. Only she and the Lord know what really happened Friday night.”
When they met, Wendy weighed nearly 200 pounds and Frank weighed nearly 300, Frank Suarez said.
“We decided together to get fit,” Suarez said.
Wendy Suarez lost 55 pounds in three and a half months by jogging, riding a bike and, most of all, eating three meals a day from a juicer. Frank Suarez lost 100 pounds in five and a half months on the same regimen.
They ate a recipe called Mean Green, which combined kale, celery, apples, cucumbers, lemon and ginger.
It not only got the Suarezes thin, it rubbed off on others, including Wendy Suarez’s principal at Jessie P. Miller, Barry Dunn.
“She was inspiring other people," said Dunn, who lost 70 pounds once he caught Suarez's enthusiasm. "She was in a great place, feeling grounded, feeling she had found a home with us.”
“She had decided to move forward with her Ph.D,” Dunn added.
Dunn also praised Wendy Suarez for her abilities as an assistant principal.
"She was a shining light," Dunn said. "She loved kids. She gave of herself. She took her job very seriously. She had a gift dealing with behavior. She could look a kid in the eye and get to the bottom of the story while keeping it cool. She knew what good instruction looked like. She had a counseling background. She had been in a few Title 1 schools and she understood children from all kinds of family backgrounds."
Others also were struck by the fact that Wendy Suarez’s life ended at the moment when it was in full gear.
“She was just blossoming personally, mentally, physically and professionally,” said Myra Russell, principal of Gene Witt Elementary School, where Suarez worked as part-time assistant principal, sharing her time with Braden River Elementary, in 2009.
Russell was Suarez’s mentor.
“Every time she got in a situation with a student, parent or me, she would say, ‘How would Myra handle this?’ “ Frank Suarez said. “She wanted to soak in as much of Myra as she could.”
One of Wendy Suarez’s best qualities was her ability to bounce around without falling apart, her husband said. That proved invaluable to the school district, which put her in many schools including Harllee Middle, where she honed her skills as a guidance counselor, to Palmetto, Tillman, Braden River, Witt and finally, Miller.
But it was at Miller that Suarez finally felt she had 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.”
Frank Suarez and others hope that a 5K or half-marathon race will one day be named in Wendy 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.
Wendy Suarez adored Frank Suarez's two children from a prior marriage, Frankie, 18, a biology major at UCF and Emile, 15. The children at first called Wendy "MOP," an acronym for mom/stepmom, but later just called her "Ma," Frank Suarez said.
"She loved dolphins," Frank Suarez said of his wife. "She wanted to one day work at Sea World and get a job as a marine biologist."
A month ago, Wendy 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.