Jill Tapper taught for 35 years in Galloway Township’s schools.

And she went to work at the Arthur Rann Elementary School on Jan. 16, just like every other school day, although a severe knee pain sent her home early that day, in a wheelchair. But that night, things got much worse.

“She lost her balance and fell,” said her niece, Michele Sharp, of Williamstown, adding that Tapper, 59, apparently had a massive heart attack, which her family believes was caused by a blood clot that showed up as that sore knee.

“She was pronounced dead at 3 a.m.,” Sharp said. “And four or five hours later, somebody was walking into her classroom of third-graders and telling them, ‘Miss Tapper died last night.’”

But that stunning news didn’t just hit hard in one class. This veteran teacher lived in Galloway too, and she had friends and fans all over the schools and all around the township.

“It was a total gasp,” said Rick Brenner, a longtime neighbor, colleague and friend, describing the reaction in his fourth-grade class, where some children were Tapper’s students last year. “It took a minute for it to sink in.”

Brenner said that Friday was “a tough day, dealing with your own grief and everyone else’s” — particularly the kids’ sadness, of course. “So it was nice to be surrounded by friends and colleagues.”

That pain spread across generations in some families. Lauren Winkler said she and her husband, Eric, were “delighted” that their oldest child, Gracie, drew Tapper as her teacher this year, because Tapper taught both mom and dad when they were kids.

“She was just one of those teachers you’ll always remember — and I was lucky enough to have her,” added Lauren, who was back with her old teacher this year, as a volunteer room mom.

This mother was “shocked, and very saddened” by Tapper’s death, but she’s sure it was even harder on the kids. “For some, it was probably their first time dealing with a death so close. ... And as a mom, this is the hardest thing I’ve had to go through yet, trying to make (Gracie) understand, and comfort her. You feel helpless.”

Another longtime friend and colleague, Terry Wenig, said Tapper earned the love she built up over decades of work by being “a phenomenal teacher. She was so dedicated to the children and the teachers in Galloway.” Tapper was vice president of the teachers’ union for years and was a great resource for other teachers.

Wenig has been teaching for 25 years, but she’s still proud to call Tapper her “mentor.” Wenig sought and got great advice from her friend over the years, “and the humor came with no extra charge,” she added.

So this funeral was hard on everyone, including Tapper’s two sisters and their kids, who thought of their Aunt Jill as “the cool aunt,” her niece said. It was hard on her regular Trivial Pursuit buddies, her fellow teachers, her students — generations of them —and more people.

“It was very sad,” Wenig said. “But at end of day, as sad as it was, you just felt it was such a great tribute to her life.”

Contact Martin DeAngelis:

609-272-7237