Patricia Ward was described as an innovative and energetic professor, credited with helping hundreds of untraditional college students transform their lives -- even as she quietly struggled at home for decades.
One son had died years ago, and she was trying to support another who had mental illness, relatives and friends said.
"She had a very difficult life and suffered greatly," said Lucille DeLetto, a fellow professor and friend who shared an office with Ward on the campus of Farmingdale State College. The women were colleagues for 28 years in the Long Island Educational Opportunity Center, a state-funded academic and vocational program for disadvantaged high schoolers and adult students.
Ward, 66, was the victim of a murder-suicide Tuesday night in which her son decapitated her before stepping in front of a Long Island Rail Road train. Derek Ward, 35, had a history of mental illness, police said.
"He was off his medication and she had desperately tried to get him help," DeLetto said, as she and others mourned on campus Wednesday. "She dedicated her life to her son. She did everything she could but, obviously, it wasn't enough."
People also gathered to mourn Patricia Ward's death Wednesday afternoon at the Farmingdale home of her brother, the Rev. Robert Lubrano.
"Right now it's so hard," Lubrano said.
"My sister, my sister," he cried, before covering his face with his hands.
Ward, who was divorced, had two sons with John Ward, 63, of Farmingdale. Their son Robert J. Ward died in October 1997, according to public records and a death notice.
Patricia Ward talked so little about her personal life at work that few on campus knew of the problems she had at home. Those who did know about her son's mental illness said they were still shocked by the level of violence that transpired.
She taught English Language Arts, first as an adjunct professor and then became an administrator in the LIEOC program. She returned to the classroom as a full-time faculty member in 2011, college officials said.
Ward was known for coming in early and staying late for her students, said Karen Coutrier, interim director of LIEOC.
She was referred to as "the anchor" of the educational opportunity program and her passion for teaching transcended the classroom. She was someone students could turn to outside of the classroom for advice on how to achieve their educational or career goals.
"Even when I wasn't motivated, she helped motivate me," said student Veronica Bowen, 23, of Islandia. "She was fun and made everything interesting. She had so much energy -- even during night classes -- she was always so full of energy."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated John Ward’s age.