JEFFERSON — A West Elementary School teacher who passed away too soon has left a legacy, not only in the hearts and minds of the generations of students she taught, but also in terms of the health of West students and the community as a whole.

Nancy Pope, who taught kindergarten and second grade at West for three decades, passed away unexpectedly two-and-a-half years ago, midway through the school year, from an aggressive form of cancer.

Pope, who liked to take walks after school with her fellow teachers, always dreamed of having a walking path that could be used by students and community alike. Now thanks to her former colleagues at West, members of Pope’s family, area foundations, and the students and families at West, that vision will be a reality.

“We thought it was a great way to memorialize her,” said fifth-grade teacher Lynda Murphy.

The official “groundbreaking” for the Pope Path, to lie between West and Jefferson Middle School, took place on Friday, June 7, the last day of school for students.

The actual groundwork on the trail will start in around a week, but the ceremony was moved up so that all of the students could take part.

“Every person you see here today helped make this happen,” said West teacher Lynda Murphy, who helped head up the campaign to make the path a reality. “Without all of you, this absolutely wouldn’t be possible. From the bottom of my heart, thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Present for the occasion were the late teacher’s brother, Jim Pope, and his family, along with representatives of the Jefferson Community Foundation, the Fort HealthCare Foundation and the Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation, all of which provided major support for the project.

Along with providing substantial support were Mary Ramirez, Nestle-Purina PetCare, the Didion Family Foundation and the West Elementary School Parent-Teacher Organization.

In addition to the traditional groundbreaking hoopla, which involved representatives of the foundations, the Pope family, and the school holding golden shovels and symbolically turning a pile of earth where the trail would run, Friday’s ceremony also involved the entire school.

A line of paint delineating where the trail would run had been sprayed onto the grass for the occasion, and as part of the ceremony, all of the students linked hands all along that line to create a visual impression of the Pope Path.

Everyone present then took a ceremonial lap around the quarter-mile trail.

In addition, the youngsters sang an open-air version of the school song, “We Are the Wildcats.”

The Pope Path, a quarter-mile trail with two loops, should be ready for use when school opens again in the fall, with an initial gravel surface. A final blacktop surface is planned for a future phase of the project, slated for construction in the summer of 2020.

Plans call for an open space in the middle of the trail, where students could play soccer or other games.

The total project cost for the Pope Path, all phases, is $58,000. It is being paid for entirely through grants, donations and fundraisers, with no district tax dollars used.

West’s spring “Fun Run” raised more than $18,000 for the new path and for benches and tables and also for trees to be planted in the area. The West Elementary Parent-Teacher Organization previously had set aside a substantial amount of money for the project, as well.

Contributing major grants were the Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation, the Jefferson Foundation and the Fort HealthCare Foundation, and members of the Pope family contributed substantially toward the project as well.

The path will serve West Elementary students at recess, in gym class and for special classroom events, and it will be open for use by students at other district schools when West is not using it and by the general public during off-hours.

“It’s a great cause and a wonderful memorial to Nancy Pope, who had such a positive impact throughout our district,” said School District of Jefferson Superintendent Mark Rollefson.

“She played an important part in a lot of people’s lives, for more than a generation,” Rollefson said of Pope.

“In addition, it promotes healthy activity for our students and for people around the community,” Rollefson said.

The superintendent said that he anticipates that the path will see good use by community members, from teachers getting into the fresh air after a day in the classroom to neighbors wanting to get some exercise.

He said that he does not think the district will be clearing snow from the path during the winter, but the path should be usable for a good portion of the year and even at times during the winter months when there’s no snow.

Heading up the campaign to make the Pope Path a reality were Murphy and another teacher, Danyel Fountain, with assistance from third-grade teacher Megan Carstens, who has served as a track coach for the district.

Now the hard work of those teachers and all of the supporters the project has garnered along the way has paid off, bringing Pope’s dream to life.

Fountain said that the path not only serves as a great testament to a wonderful teacher, but that it also serves to boost student health.

One of the ideas that is percolating for the coming years is the establishment of a walking club in the morning.

Fountain said that a lot of children get dropped off well before the school opens in the morning, as their parents have to get to work. These students could take part in the walking club, the exercise serving to ready them for the school day.

She noted that walking gets the blood pumping and boosts oxygen to the brain.

“Just walking for five minutes helps people decompress, refocus and open up their mind all day long,” she said.

Incorporating this mild form of exercise into the school routine has been shown to improve student grades and decrease problem behaviors, Fountain said.

Fountain said this will be a wonderful community asset.

“I’d love to see people using it on weekends and during the summer,” Murphy said.

The process this summer will include plotting the path, flattening the area, possibly providing a deeper pea gravel base due to soil issues, laying a temporary gravel trail to serve the school the first year, and ultimately, putting in a final blacktop layer.

The district still is accepting community donations for the project. Checks may be sent to or dropped off at the district office, 206 S. Taft St., Jefferson, WI, 53549. Donors should designate “Pope Path” in the memo area of their checks.

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