Family, friends, colleagues and local residents gathered for an emotional and uplifting ceremony Thursday morning to dedicate a Brentwood elementary school building to the late Gail Kirkham, a longtime district school board member and education advocate who died in January.
In large silver-toned letters hoisted high on the brick facade, the Northeast Elementary School on Devon Road is now known as the Gail Elaine Kirkham Northeast Elementary School.
Kirkham, who spent the past 13 years as a trustee on the school board pushing for such measures as universal prekindergarten, died Jan. 1 from complications of heart disease. She was 63.
Kirkham and her husband, Albert, who died in 2000, raised children Deidra Kirkham-Olds, 43, of Islip Terrace, Jasyn Kirkham, 41, of Rotterdam in upstate New York, and Tyrel Kirkham, 34, of Brooklyn, all of whom graduated from Brentwood schools.
“This school has a very special place in my heart,” Kirkham-Olds told the crowd, recalling that she and her siblings were once pupils there. “The fact that my mom contributed so much time and effort and she was rewarded tenfold is just an incredible honor. Thank you.”
Several people who knew Kirkham for decades recalled her dedication to all things that bettered the Brentwood community and its residents: the public library, local Police Athletic League and parent-teacher associations.
Even as her health failed, Kirkham maintained her relentless work ethic, said her mother, Lillie P. Jackson, 88, of Douglas, Georgia. She recalled that Kirkham would continue to work from bed using her laptop.
During the hourlong dedication, the school’s fifth-grade chorus serenaded the crowd as pictures of Kirkland flashed on a screen. One of those photos, of a pumpkin patch, told a story not many knew, said the school’s principal, Kevin McWhirter.
One year, when it became too costly for the district to send its students to a local pumpkin patch to pick out the fall seasonal favorite, Kirkham enlisted the help of district officials, and even her mother, to bring a field of pumpkins to the students in an effort to make sure the children didn’t go without the ritual, McWhirter said.
“She delivered thousands of pumpkins and made sure every student had a pumpkin,” McWhirter said. “It was a huge undertaking. It was an amazing sight.”