Katherine Hennessy Van Leer spent her life taking care of children, starting before she was even a teenager.
When Van Leer was 12, her mother died, and Katherine began caring for her sister and two brothers still living at home.
"Katherine was a pillar to the family. She held us all together," said her sister, Marya North, 48, of Clifton, Va.
Van Leer went on to become a special-education teacher at James E. Allen Elementary School of Western Suffolk BOCES in Dix Hills, where she worked with autistic, mentally disabled, blind and deaf children.
On Friday, Van Leer, who lived in East Northport, died at Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan after a sudden acute respiratory illness. She was 52.
She was born in Manhasset. The family lived in Huntington in the six years she spent looking after her siblings while she attended school.
"She would come home from school, clean the house, cook dinner, and make lunches at night for the next day," North said.
Van Leer thought of her students as one of the most wonderful things in her life and found joy in the slightest things - like a child learning to trace his name, her sister said.
"I used to be scared of the children because I didn't understand them," North said. "Katherine came and took my hand. She introduced me to the kids and told me how amazing they were in their own individual ways. It changed my whole view on special ed and handicapped children. It opened up my whole world."
William Van Leer said his wife "stayed late every day and dedicated hours upon hours of time. She had filing cabinets filled with learning materials that she crafted on her own for each kid. She knew no two were the same."
Former co-worker and close friend Kelly Matthews said Van Leer dedicated her life to helping children. "The best interests of the children came first for her," she said. "Always."
After teaching for 14 years, Van Leer retired on disability in 1993 after an accident.
In retirement, she was dedicated to helping others, volunteering to help blind orphans from poor nations obtain medical and dental services through Operation Hearts and Homes, her family said.
"She was a bold and steadfast advocate for children. I believe she is in heaven advocating for others as she has always done," her husband said.
Besides her husband and sister, survivors include three brothers, John L. Hennessy of Stanford, Calif., David A. Hennessy of Savannah, Ga., and Michael Hennessy of Winston-Salem, N.C., and several nieces and nephews.
A memorial Mass will be offered at 9:45 a.m. today at St. Patrick Church in Huntington, with burial at the Cemetery of the Holy Rood in Westbury.