A few years ago, Kelly Devine learned that her good friend and fellow New Canaan Public Schools teacher, Katherine Munson, was training for a half-marathon that would take place in Norwalk.
Munson didn’t ask anyone to come support her, including Devine, though the pair saw each other every day at New Canaan High School, on many weekends and had coached together at Norwalk’s Shore and Country Swim Club.
As she was nearing the finish line, Munson recalled Monday afternoon, “I heard ‘Kat, Kat!’ ”
“It was Kelly,” Munson recalled through tears. “She just showed up by herself—that is what she did: She just showed up. Nobody asked. She just made you feel so special and loved all the time.”
On April 7, Devine died suddenly, following a brief and unexpected illness. She was 36.
Compassionate, dedicated, warm and talented, Devine possessed rare gifts for connecting with and uplifting others, according to those who knew her well—not least those the teacher and coach spent much of her life nurturing. A lover of books and writing who taught Language Arts at Saxe Middle School for 12 years and three more at the high school, Devine encouraged and inspired her students, they say, forging bonds and lessons that have reached far beyond the classroom.
Sarah Maddox, a 2015 NCHS graduate who is now a freshman at the University of Connecticut, said she developed a close relationship with Devine as a Language Arts student in the eighth grade. Maddox credits Devine with leading her onto her current path toward a degree in journalism.
“She was an amazing teacher,” Maddox said. “I had her in eighth grade, and that’s a huge year for everyone, kind of a big growing-up year. I went into the year as a very awkward middle school student, and she was always so confident in what she was teaching. That alone was a huge influence for me and helped me so much. She really just made me love writing that year.”
Devine would go on to push Maddox to take Honors English as a high school freshman.
“She paid close attention to everyone in the class,” Maddox recalled. “She was really passionate about teaching writing and grammar, and she pushed us to write about things that we were uncomfortable with—insecurities and things that made us sad—that was a new thing for us that year. She was so impactful for so many people.”
That includes swimmers as well as students.
David Fine, a New Canaan High School math teacher who coaches NCHS swim teams (with Munson) and grew up swimming with the New Canaan YMCA team, knew Devine as a fellow teacher and swim coach in the Fairfield County Swim League. In 17 years at Shore and Country, Fine said, Devine (herself a standout sprinter) taught and developed some of the very best swimmers to come out of Connecticut—Division I college and Y Nationals athletes.
“In the coaching world she was extremely respected and—in my eyes—she is one of best coaches that the FCSL ever had,” Fine said.
One of Fine’s most lasting impressions of Devine is looking up from the pool deck at the Y during high school swim meets and seeing her there, supporting the team, coaches and especially the swimmers—often her own (summer) athletes or students.
“It didn’t matter what dual meet it was—if we had a meet at the Y, she was there, because she cared,” Fine said. “She really cared about everybody else and cared about everybody’s success, I would say, even more than her own.”
That generosity of spirit is one reason why news of Devine’s untimely passing has spread so quickly and pervasively, despite it being April break, and shaken the school and wider community.
“Kelly was adored by all who knew her at NCHS and her students are devastated by this unexpected tragedy,” said Lynda Pescatello, administrative assistant in the main office at NCHS.
Amy Rochlin said she counts herself as “lucky to know” Devine and her many talents as a parent, Board of Education member and Saxe PTC president.
“As a board member, I saw the value in how she connected to kids and really brought out the best in them academically, because she was really a talented, talented educator,” Rochlin said.
Rochlin said her own daughter, Grace, “thrived” under Devine, a “wonderful and warm” teacher who “brought out the best in her kids.”
“Kelly was someone who could always absolutely be counted on to raise her hand and connect with kids, which is so important at that age. Smart, warm, fun and she related to them on that level. She was really a gift to our school system.”
Dr. Bryan Luizzi, superintendent of schools in New Canaan, had been principal at NCHS when Devine crossed South Avenue from Saxe in 2013. Luizzi said he went to Devine’s classroom on Monday afternoon and though she hardly ever missed a day of school, “on her desk right next to the computer was the substitute folder with all the materials, just in case.”
“She was just a consummate professional and a good person who really cared about kids, who was really focused on doing all she could to help them learn and grow and appreciate the value of an education, of reading, of writing. She was the real deal. She dedicated her life to her kids. Whenever I saw her, she was always smiling, always positive, just had a very good energy about her and a very positive spirit in all she did. And she reached a lot of kids. She really made a difference in the lives of students that she had in front of her every day. And she left a very positive impression on everybody.”
One of those was Sue Carroll, coordinator of the College and Career Center at NCHS, who called Devine “lovely.”
“I knew Kelly best as a Senior Internship host site at Saxe and then as an intern mentor at NCHS,” Carroll said. “She was always one of the first to say ‘Yes’ and welcomed working with students in myriad capacities. Kind, funny and energetic, she will be sorely missed.”
Stephanie Torromeo, a 2013 NCHS graduate, now an English lit major at Colgate, said Devine “inspired me to love writing and to love literature.”
And she did that the hard way, Torromeo said: teaching Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” to a class of eighth-graders.
“She made the experience fun,” Torromeo said. “It’s obviously not easy for a 13-year-old to understand, but she showed us the humor and we had a lot of fun reading it.”
That fun side was on display once, Munson recalled, when Devine, who began learning to cook rather recently, “came to my apartment one time and said, ‘Teach me to make a meal.’ ”
“And she was sitting there taking notes while I was cooking and then she went home and the next night I got a picture message from her of the same meal, ‘I did it.’ I was like, ‘Did you really want to have that same meal back-to-back,’ and she said that she had to do it while it was still fresh in her memory. She was silly and fun like that, and playful.”
Kelly Harshbarger, whose daughters Brittany (NCHS ’09) and Katie (’15) had Devine as a teacher, said they were both “inspired” by her.
“She was beautiful inside and out,” said Harshbarger, who added that her family was “shocked” by Devine’s passing.
“She was one of those people who had a kind word to say about everybody,” she said. “God got an angel—that is all I can say.”
For Munson, Devine was “that one in a million kind of person that she would do anything for friends, family, students, swimmers.”
“She had this ability to make her colleagues and her students feel so important, like everything really mattered and make people believe in themselves because she believed in you. The amount of people she touched—it is not even calculable, and the depth of her influence, too. It wasn’t just, ‘I knew her and she was nice’—it was, ‘I knew her and she cared about me and that I mattered to her,’ and there are not a lot of people you can say that about. She was just a rare gem. She was the best soul I knew.”
Friends may call from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Collins Funeral Home, 92 East Ave., Norwalk. A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Thursday in St. Philip Church, 1 Fr. Conlon Place, Norwalk. Burial will follow in St. John Cemetery, Norwalk. In her memory, her family is establishing a scholarship for the benefit of Norwalk High School students interested in pursuing a career in Language Arts. Contributions can be made payable to Lovejoy & Rimer, Trustee, ATTN: Chris Jarboe, 65 East Avenue, Norwalk, CT 06851.