The compassion of Gary Smith will live on through teachers like Margie Smith and LaDonna Liggins.

The compassion of Gary Smith will live on through teachers like Margie Smith and LaDonna Liggins.

The 2010 winners of the Gary Smith Compassionate Teaching Award pledged on Monday night to continue to strive to live up to the standards set by Smith.

Nicole Gnezda, widow of Smith, presented the annual award at the meeting of the school board.

Smith was a much loved and respected teacher in Worthington from 1966 to 1998, when he died from cancer.

The award was set up by his family and is given each year to a teacher or teachers who, like Smith, go above and beyond to help students with personal or academic needs.

Teachers are nominated by students or staff, with the decision made by Gnezda and her family. It includes a monetary award, funded by donations made by students, former students, parents, colleagues and friends.

Donations and hundreds of letters and calls were received from all over the world after word spread of Smith's illness and death.

Each year, former students return to run in the Gary Smith Classic.

"Gary was so loved because he was a man of values and high character," Gnezda said.

He taught English and coached track, cross country, and, early in his career, basketball.

His boys and girls track and cross country teams won many titles, but it was the development of the character of the athletes that was important to Smith, Gnezda said.

She recalled a letter from a former student who shared her experience as a seventh-grader who felt ugly and inferior. She thanked Smith for appreciating her worth.

"You reached in and picked me up by the soul," she wrote.

Students shared similar memories about Liggins and Smith in their letters of nomination, Gnezda said.

Liggins, who teaches fifth grade at Slate Hill Elementary School, recognizes the difficulties her students and families face, and helps students learn how to work through their problems, she said.

One girl wrote: "You don't know how many girls want to be teachers because of Mrs. Liggins."

Liggins said she tries to make children feel safe, secure, and happy in her classroom, believing that you have to touch a child's heart before you can touch his or her mind.

She said she had read about Gary Smith, and had hoped to someday be like him.

"There is so much more I need to do to deserve this award," she said.

Smith, who teaches third grade at Evening Street Elementary School, loves students with an enthusiastic heart, Gnezda said.

Students who nominated her said she looks past behaviors because she knows there is a good person underneath, and that "she goes out of her way to make things stick with you."

Margie Smith said she felt compelled to learn all she could about Gary Smith, and was "ignited" by what she learned about his life and contributions.

Receiving the award was "a bit of heaven for me," she said, pledging to continue to try to be worthy of the award.

"Compassion is essential for the human race to survive together," she said.

Receiving separate recognition for her teaching skills on Monday was Valerie Cahill, a sixth-grade teacher at Worthington Park Elementary School, who was nominated by staff for a staff impact award for her dedication to students and fellow staff.

"I can't see myself doing anything else but being a teacher," she said.

Board members said they were touched by the awards and the words of the teachers.

"If that doesn't embody everything that's great about this school district, I don't know what does," said board member Marc Schare.

cbrooks@thisweeknews.com