Susan Shinn column: School copes with 2nd death

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 22, 2006

By Susan Shinn

Salisbury Post

CHINA GROVE — On the sidewalk in front of China Grove Elementary School, students have scrawled notes to Patty Burg-doff in chalk. Their hearts and crosses and “I love you Patty” messages stretch up and down the sidewalk.

By Wednesday morning, the words had faded in the morning drizzle.

Downstairs in Traci Honeycutt’s second grade classroom, students made cards for Patty from pieces of bright yellow construction paper.

There were pictures of Patty and her classmates hand-in-hand, playing outside.

One student wrote, “We loved her like a sister.”

Honeycutt has placed a notebook on Patty’s desk for the children to write down their comments.

One read, “I hope you have a Merry Christmas. Patty, you are God’s angel.”

Honeycutt said her students were concerned that Patty would miss Christmas.

“I told them she’ll have the best Christmas ever being with God,” Honeycutt said.

Her students told her that Patty was with Deanna, and that they could be buddies.

For the second time this year, students and staff at China Grove Elementary are dealing with loss.

Patty, 8, was killed in a Dec. 8 car wreck. Police have charged the driver of the other car with DWI. She was the daughter of Don and Cynthia Burgdoff. In March, third-grader Deanna Williams died as the result of being hit by a car.

“You don’t get any kind of training for something like this,” said Principal Terry Whitesell, sitting in his office Wednesday morning.

Whitesell was asleep late Friday night when he got a call from a state trooper. The trooper’s wife knew Honeycutt and wanted to get in touch with her.

Confused by sleep, Whitesell thought the trooper was calling about a parent.

He couldn’t believe tragedy had struck again.

He spent the weekend alerting faculty and staff and visiting Patty’s parents.

During Monday morning announcements, he told the school’s 700-plus students about the accident.

He kept the notes he wrote about Patty, jotted on a doodle pad. He spoke of her “beautiful, contagious smile,” and how she never met a stranger. He asked the students to shake hands with or hug three people around them that morning.

Lots of children in second grade were affected; not only classmates, but classmates from previous years as well, Whitesell said.

On Monday, the staff placed a wreath in Patty’s memory in front of the school. Two days later, the white flowers had begun to fade.

Whitesell said he struggled about how assist the family. He visited over the weekend to offer any help from the school. On Tuesday, the staff took food intended for their Christmas social, and provided it for Patty’s large extended family after the funeral.

The family has requested that memorials be sent in Patty’s name to China Grove Elementary PTA.

“It’s beyond nice,” Whitesell said, “but I’d much rather have Patty. To me, it’s just an honor they’d do that. That tells me that school meant a lot to Patty, but Patty meant a lot to this school, too.”

School did mean a lot to Patty, Honeycutt said.

“On Friday morning, she looked at me and said, ‘Miss Honeycutt, I love you.’ She left here happy. She had a great day.”

Contact Susan Shinn at 704-797-4289 or