ST. JOHN — St. John High School is mourning the loss of a talented musician and actor and his mother who served as an elementary school paraprofessional.
Linda Gleason, 56, and her son, Jeffrey Gleason, 17, died Tuesday when an apparent tornado toppled a cottonwood tree and crushed their vehicle off U.S. 281 in Stafford County.
St. John Principal Mike Burgan said the Gleasons will be missed. He said Linda worked admirably as a paraprofessional in special education, a job that requires unique skills. She was a sponsor for the junior high Scholars Bowl team.
Jeffrey performed in school plays and served as a team manager for volleyball and track. He was a member of the National Honor Society, Scholars Bowl, school band, FCCLA, student council and KAYS.
“Dealing with a tragedy is one of the worst parts of my job,” said Burgan, who said Jeffrey enjoyed a colorful, giving personality. “In a small town, students are often heavily involved in their school. We develop personal relationships with the students and this is really hard to deal with.”
School has been dismissed for the year and grief counselors would normally be made available.
“Some of the students got together on their own and talked to each other about what happened last night,” Burgan said.
Stafford County Sheriff Jeff Parr said a 911 call alerted deputies of a tree falling on a vehicle at 5:10 p.m. Tuesday two miles south of the Barton-Stafford County line off U.S. 281.
Parr said the driver had apparently moved off the roadway to escape 2.75-inch hail from a thunderstorm that spawned the apparent tornado.
“I’m sure they were trying to make it to a safer place,” Parr said.
A back-seat passenger, Kristin Gleason, 21, was listed in good condition after being treated for injuries at Great Bend Regional Hospital. She was expected to be released form the hospital Thursday. She was extricated from the vehicle by emergency personnel using the Jaws of Life. Two nearby oil field rigs removed the cottonwood tree from the vehicle.
Kristin is a Phi Kappa Phi scholar from Kansas State University who will start teaching at Southwestern Heights High School next fall.
Jane Bennington, St. John play producer, described Jeffrey as a uniquely talented student who delighted in helping others. She said Jeffrey was comfortable working behind the scenes, or in front of an audience.
She achieved her goal of perfect casting by portraying Jeffrey as Tevye the Dairyman in the fall production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” It’s a demanding role that requires a wide range of singing skill in addition to acting.
“Jeffrey was made for that role because he’s a wonderful singer,” she said. “His mother made his costumes and he grew a beard for his part. It was his biggest role with tons of lines, but he handled it perfectly.”
Jeffrey earned the school’s year-end award for Best Male Performance. He served as a hands-on student director for the spring play, “You, the Jury.”
“Jeffrey liked to organize things and immersed himself in everything he was involved in,” Bennington said. “He was so helpful in all the plays. He was certainly an artistic young man. We will miss him so very much.”
Christy Taylor served as St. John’s band and choir director. Jeffrey played tuba in the school band and was lead tenor in the choir concert. He earned I ratings for his solos in regionals, state and the Central Prairie League.
“Jeffrey had a passion for both singing and playing the tuba, but he enjoyed singing more than anything,” she said. “He was willing to help out whenever he was asked.”
Taylor said Jeffrey worked with his mother to sharpen his vocal skills in his practice for “Fiddler on the Roof.” She watched with the eye of a vocal teacher when she saw Jeffrey perform. She had just visited with Jeffrey about his future plans, which were a work in progress.
“Jeffrey did exceptionally well in his part as Tevye,” she said. “Jeffrey was maturing as a singer and I was looking forward to seeing what he would do next year.”
Taylor said there is no way to prepare for such a tragic event.
“We’ve learned that Jeffrey helped a lot of people in school. The way he lived his life affected a lot of people,” she said. “What happened is just not fair.”