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Katie O'Keefe

Southridge Elementary School teacher Katie O'Keefe with Principal Doug Smith.

They remember Katie O’Keefe bounding on her tiptoes around the halls of Southridge Elementary, her blond hair just visible over the heads of her first-grade students. They remember Katie the hugger, always asking for just one more from a friend or coworker before they separated.

There’s the memory of her first meeting at Southridge, after she was hired in the spring of 2015, fresh from the University of Wyoming. She wore “all Southridge gear,” her coworkers remember. She’d even painted her fingernails purple and teal, the school’s colors. She worked at a clothing store in Casper that summer and said she planned to buy every stitch of clothing in those two colors.

“She was happy. Sometimes to a fault,” Jennifer Bonnett, Katie’s first-grade teaching partner, said as she laughed through tears. “It was sometimes — like I just wanted to say, ‘But that’s not how I see it!’ You know? And she would just be like, ‘But it’ll all be OK!’”

Then there’s the last message they received from Katie, hours before she was killed in a June 16 car crash. Southridge Principal Doug Smith had sent out an email announcing the hiring of a new PE teacher. School had been out for a little over a week. Katie was on a trip to Moab, Utah, with her boyfriend. Still, she responded at 12:55 p.m.

“Doug, thanks for letting us know. Can’t wait to meet him!” she wrote.

Katie must’ve been on the road at that point, her coworkers say.

“She took the time to say, ‘Can’t wait!’” said Meegan Steinberg, Katie’s other teaching partner.

Troopers responded to the scene at 2:50 p.m. Her boyfriend, Eric Hagen, was driving the couple to Moab for “an adventure” when a car carrying a mother and her three children drifted into their lane. Only Eric survived. He was taken by helicopter to a Denver hospital and is stable; he planned to attend Katie’s funeral Friday in Casper.

The afternoon of the crash, the Southridge staff had heard rumors that Katie had been in an accident, that her boyfriend had been taken by helicopter to a hospital. They searched, in vain, for information. They didn’t want to believe it.

“That was Doug’s first response: She just emailed,” Steinberg said.

Katie had turned 28 only 10 days earlier.

* * *

There are earlier memories too, of course. Her mother, Diane Bouzis, remembers Katie’s early joy. She was born on June 6, 1989, a few weeks early, and was a handful that summer. She was colicky, typical for premature babies. But then the bright optimism that would last through her life began to shine.

“When she got over the colic, she was just happy,” Diane said simply. “She would wake up and just smile.”

Once, when Katie was 3, Diane went to wake her. Katie greeted her with a big smile and said, “My eyes won’t open!”

Her mom laughs now and imitates 3-year-old Katie’s voice, her eyes shining behind a pair of glasses. Diane is still incredulous: Katie couldn’t open her eyes, for whatever reason, but the smile was still there.

Similar stories are repeated, with different details but the same theme, by everyone who knew Katie. Happiness had a permanence with her, they said. She wanted to be surrounded by people. When she wasn’t hugging her coworkers, she was reaching out to pet them, Steinberg said.

Katie would sometimes approach softly, unsure if others’ moods matched hers. “Oh, Ms. Meegan,” she’d say, and then maybe a little pet on the upper arm or back.

“It was just her loving soul,” her mom said. “She never liked being alone.”

Teaching seemed to be her destiny. When she was growing up in Cody, her family lived across the street from the entrance to Livingston Elementary’s kindergarten classrooms. She would wander into those classrooms before she was old enough to learn in them.

The family moved, first to Laramie and then to Casper, where Katie graduated from Natrona County High School. She went to the University of Wyoming to study engineering, following in the footsteps of her older brother, Bill. She was good at math, her father — also named Bill — explained, and she looked up to her brother, an electrical engineer. (Her mother says Eric, Katie’s boyfriend, is just like Bill.)

But she didn’t take to it. She took a semester off and spent some time at Black Hills State in South Dakota. But it was too easy, she told her parents, and she wanted to come back to her family, to Wyoming.

“I think after she started the education major, she just grew and grew,” Diane said, as Bill, her brother, sat on an adjacent couch in Diane’s south Casper home and nodded.

She student taught at Manor Heights Elementary, her mom said. That solidified it.

“Oh my God, you would’ve thought she found a gold mine,” Diane said. “Stories every day, kids hugging her. ... It was so cool to see. Because I knew she was right where she needed to be. She found her home.”

“She was ecstatic, just with life.”

* * *

You can read the details of the crash in the report filed by the Wyoming Highway Patrol. You can see that speed and inattention are considered factors. You can learn what kind of truck Eric was driving, at what milepost one vehicle slammed into the other, how both were engulfed in flames when troopers arrived.

You can see the immediate aftermath of the crash from a photo on brother Bill’s phone. He turned it sideways to show the image: There’s Eric’s trailer, turned sideways so it’s blocking the road. Behind it is a wall of flames.

What those details meant to her loved ones you can learn, as much as a stranger can, from looking into the face of Diane.

“I know what hell is like,” she said. Her voice is quiet, but it does not shake. Her eyes do not blink. “Simple as that.”

Bill looked toward the floor, where three large picture frames, full of photos of Katie, in sundresses and kayaks and graduation gowns, were stacked against the furniture. Bill, who lives near Seattle, had been in Bahrain, working as an electrical engineer for the Department of Defense, when his wife called him.

“My mom got a call that Katie had been in a wreck, didn’t know the details, just knew that it was serious,” Bill said. “She went straight to my dad’s, and that’s when Marianne (Bill’s wife) ... she called me, that was before any of us knew just how ... “

His voice trailed off. “What had happened,” he finished.

“I called my mom, and she still didn’t know exactly, she didn’t know that Katie hadn’t — that Katie didn’t make it,” Bill continued. “I called my dad probably a minute later, and in between that time, they — “

“We found out,” Diane finished.

“So when Dad answered, I just heard several women screaming in agony in the background,” Bill said quietly. It was 4 a.m. in Bahrain on Saturday morning. “That’s when I knew.”

“I don’t know how to put that into words,” Diane said.

“I was so far away, and right when I heard those screams, I felt like I was on a different planet,” Bill said. “And the Middle East is already such a strange place anyway. It looked like I was on a different planet, too.”

The family didn’t receive a knock on the door or a phone call from law enforcement. As of Thursday afternoon, they still hadn’t heard from anyone. That still bothers Diane.

“I had to call the Carbon County Sheriff’s Office and say, ‘My daughter was a passenger in Eric Hagen’s car,’” she said. “’I’m giving you permission to tell me.’

“I had to beg to find out.”

* * *

The family discovered that Katie had been killed by a drifting vehicle because someone on the highway recognized Eric’s trailer, surrounded by flames. That’s how Bill had the photo on his phone.

“He called Eric’s boss, and that’s how it all came about,” Diane said. Pure chance, they said. Then Eric’s boss called Southridge Elementary. The school called Diane’s sister-in-law.

Word spread through the school. Bill, the brother, started trying to find his way home. Family gathered at the house of Bill, the father.

They arranged a rosary for Thursday and a funeral the following day. They answered questions they never thought they’d have to: Bill, the father, describes being asked about how many programs to buy for the service. He didn’t know. But Katie had touched so many lives. She had so many friends.

So he said a lot.

At Southridge, the school held a barbecue on Saturday for the staff to come together to mourn, to remember. They posted on the school’s Facebook page (where Katie’s father was a frequent visitor; principal Smith laughed that Bill liked every post on the page) and began collecting memories of Katie.

Katie’s family was a common feature at the school: During her first year there, Diane would regularly visit her daughter in her new home.

Bonnett and Steinberg, Katie’s teaching partners, said they were bothered by their last goodbye to Katie. The staff had teacher development the day after school ended, but Bonnett had to leave early to take her child to a doctor’s appointment.

She doesn’t think she said goodbye to Katie then. She thinks she probably said something casual the day before, on the last day of school.

Steinberg said she sat at Katie’s table during the professional development session and can’t remember if she said goodbye.

“You probably got a hug that day, though,” Smith, the principal, chimed in.

“Probably,” Steinberg said quietly.

A Google document created by Southridge’s staff began circulating online, collecting stories and memories from the school’s community. As of Wednesday, it ran more than 15 pages.

One unidentified parent wrote, “She treated each one of her kiddos with love and compassion, and did such an amazing job helping my daughter through her year. She is too young and too loved for such a sudden end, and will be dearly missed.

“We love her.”

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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