A beloved Custer Elementary School music teacher - called Mrs. T by some of her students - died this week after a nearly two-year struggle with colon cancer.
Kara Telgenhoff, 35, had planned to cut the ribbon Friday evening, June 22, for the survivor's lap that begins this year's Lynden Relay for Life event.
Telgenhoff died Tuesday in her Birch Bay Village home. She is survived by her husband, Craig, and 2-year-old daughter, Faith.
Fighting back tears, friends and family described Telgenhoff as a woman of faith who was kind, selfless and an inspiration throughout the illness that she called her "journey."
"What defined her and what made her who she was and what people admired most about her was her faith," Craig Telgenhoff, her husband of 11 years, said. "She was a woman who walked the walk and lived by example and always did the right thing."
She touched the lives of many people in Whatcom County, whether as a music teacher, a member of Lynden Community Church or as someone who helped put on Miss Whatcom County and served as a mentor to the young women in the program over the years.
"She never had a clue she did that. She was so humble," friend Patti Belik said of Telgenhoff's effect on others. "She never expected accolades for anything that she did. It was the sheer joy of doing it that drove her."
Belik was the director of the Miss Whatcom County program when Telgenhoff was crowned in 1998.
She said Telgenhoff considered the cancer to be the "journey that God had given her."
"She truly felt that part of His reason for this was for her to be an example of a woman of faith handling a crisis in her life," Belik said, "that if she could just be an example for one person that she would have done her job."
Belik also praised Telgenhoff for what she taught her students.
"They didn't just learn how to play the piano," Belik said, "they learned how to be good people from her."
Telgenhoff's favorite instrument was the piano. She sang in a beautiful, clear voice - "absolutely beautiful, just like an angel," said Aimee Cantrelle, her sister-in-law.
Telgenhoff had been teaching at Custer Elementary since 2004, and also taught at Eagleridge Elementary from 2008-10.
She was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer in August 2010.
John Fairbairn, principal at Custer Elementary, said Telgenhoff was an "incredibly upbeat, incredibly positive person."
Others agreed, noting that she sang at Relay for Life in Lynden last year and that she kept a promise to a friend by singing at his wedding on Saturday.
"There was never one complaint out of her mouth," Cantrelle said of her sister-in-law's life with cancer.
The way she lived - she kept on living to the end, they said - and what she gave to others has resonated.
Those who loved her talk about the flash mob that occurred in her honor a few weeks back in the gym at Custer Elementary. Her husband talked about the students who loved to hug his wife and the birthday party in February that was organized for her within four days - attended by 250 people, young and old.
"It was spiritually and emotionally uplifting and it was a true celebration of life," Craig Telgenhoff said.
On Thursday, June 21, on the last day of school for Custer Elementary, some students and parents gathered on the beach at Birch Bay to remember their teacher and to tie messages on balloons that were released into the sky.
"It's hard to talk about Kara right now," Fairbairn said. "She loved music. She loved kids, so being a music teacher was a true gift and calling for Kara."
Searching for words to describe Telgenhoff, Fairbairn said simply: "We lost somebody that was a part of who we are."
RELAY FOR LIFE
What: North Whatcom Relay for Life
When: 6 p.m. Friday, June 22, through noon Saturday, June 23.
Where: Northwest Washington fairgrounds, 1775 Front St. in Lynden.
Events: Opening ceremony, 6 p.m.; survivor lap, 6:15 p.m.; luminaria ceremony, 10 p.m. (dusk); closing ceremony, about 11:30 a.m. Saturday.
Details: Go online to this relayforlife.org webpage. Donations to Relay, which is a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, can be made even after the event.
Reach KIE RELYEA firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2234.