Joanne "Jody" Eff, a Centerport native, was always more than two hours early for school. She used to wait in the parking lot of W.S. Mount Elementary School in Stony Brook, where she was a teacher for more than 10 years, for the custodians to arrive and unlock the doors.
"She lived for her students," said Janet Von Bargen, a teacher at the school who knew Eff well. "She lived for bringing them the best education that she could and she stayed here and she worked relentlessly, passionately, always looking for ways to do things better for the kids in her classroom."
Eff died of pneumonia and aplastic anemia May 15 at Huntington Hospital, her family said. She was 56.
It was Eff's balance of work and play, her timely determination and fluid sense of humor, that made her name legend around school, Von Bargen said.
She moved seamlessly from fueling ideas in faculty meetings to riding a unicycle for her students. Everyone wanted to be in Eff's classroom.
Beginning this year, Ward Melville High School in East Setauket will annually present three scholarship awards to graduating students who best exemplify Eff's legacy of compassion and tenacity.
Teaching, however, was not Eff's first career choice. After graduating from Stony Brook University in 1978, Eff worked in retail for 15 years, eventually becoming the general manager of Filene's Basement in Manhasset.
She received a master's degree in elementary education from Long Island University's C.W. Post Campus, now LIU Post, in 1999, and went to work at W.S. Mount Elementary that year.
In 2003, Eff was diagnosed with kidney failure and was in need of a transplant. Later that year, a teacher at W.S. Mount volunteered to donate her kidney. Eff received the transplant, but retired from teaching in 2010 for medical reasons.
"Jody lived her life by helping others," said John Eff Jr., her husband and a professor at New York Institute of Technology.
The two met through a Newsday personal ad in 1989, and were married for almost 22 years.
Eff said despite having to care for his wife's medical needs he would do it all over again.
"When you're a team, and you have a soul mate, you do it," he said. "If it's a real, true bond and you really care about somebody, it's for life and you'll do it."
Eff also is survived by her mother, Doris Davis of East Northport; and two brothers, Jim Davis of Catskill and John Davis of Patchogue.
Before a cremation, friends and family gathered for a funeral service May 20 at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in East Northport.