Degrees and Certifications:
Dr. Julia Roark died in a tragic accident April 8 while riding her bicycle in Falcon Zone. The following words were written by Peter Hilts, chief education officer in remembrance of the person Dr. Roark was and the impact she made on students, families and staff in District 49.
As our district endures a horrible season of loss and uncertainty, it has been comforting to remind ourselves of the powerful impact a committed educator can have on colleagues and students.
We first heard about Julia Roark when she applied to be superintendent of a school district a little north of here. Several of us knew people who were finalists for that job, so we read the articles and reviewed the resumes that were posted online. It was pretty clear to us that their top candidate should be an assistant superintendent from Aspen named Julia Roark. Well, fortunately for us, they chose a different leader.
One year later, we met Dr. Roark when she applied to lead the Falcon Zone. We got excited. When we saw her perform through a gauntlet of panel interviews and timed tasks, we got very excited. By the end of the day we saw six candidates, but no competition. Julia was the brightest prospect of the bunch and we were thrilled when she agreed to come and lead the Falcon Zone. We knew we had a leader who was going to make us better—we just had no idea how much light she would bring to our lives.
Julia brought light to all she did and everyone she served. In education, we often talk about the aha moment when the light comes on and you have a flash of understanding. Well, with Julia it wasn’t a flash because the light was always on. She wasn’t just well educated—making her smart; she was also well experienced, making her wise. When she studied something, Julia learned all the things and quickly became an expert. When she first came to District 49, Julia came to me, somewhat sheepishly, and said she would need to miss one of our first leadership meetings. She had a prior commitment to attend a training in Alaska. What she didn’t say was, “I’m a national leader for cognitive coaching and there are dozens of school districts counting on me to come and lead their training.” She could have said that, but she didn’t. One of Julia’s defining characteristics was humility. She never drew attention to herself or her accomplishments. When I visited her office this week, Julia’s degrees and diplomas were literally stacked on a side desk gathering dust. Somehow she never got around to posting her own credentials. What was displayed were a poster about kindness, a book about happiness, some Dr. Suess artwork, lots of pictures of her children Austin and Alex, and a big framed glossy of her husband Greg front and center.
Instead of resting on her past accomplishments, Julia doubled up on learning about our district, and brought years of leadership to serve the principal team in the Falcon Zone. Her principals would tell you that Julia rarely planned anything that began with “I” it was always “We” except when she said, “How can I help?” If you messaged Julia with a problem or crisis, she didn’t call back—she drove over. She walked in the door and asked, “How are you doing? How can I help?” Last night, after we learned about the tragic death of Michael Finley, I needed to call Julia. We could always depend on her best when we were at a loss. Like the light she embodied, Julia brought warmth and insight. Imagine walking down a dark path, stumbling, uncertain, tentative…leadership is like that sometimes when problems and crises take you past your experience. But that’s just when we appreciated Julia’s light the most. She illuminated our understanding with her careful questions—reminding us to pause and reflect.
Last summer, Julia lived out that philosophy on a long climb up our local landmark. As part of a district event, a bunch of teachers and parents, administrators and board members gathered for a symbolic climb up Pikes Peak. Julia was fully capable of lacing up her bright orange trail shoes and zipping up the mountain, but she didn’t. Instead, she joined me and others in the final group (we were the ones planning a “deliberate” pace) and spent the next 10 hours encouraging our progress. One friend was moving on pace, but as the air got thin, doubt crept in. Julia said, “Just 50 steps more. You don’t have to climb the whole mountain, just 50 steps more. You can make it 50 steps, you can do this.” With her encouragement, that climber and our whole group, turned 50 steps into 500. Then 500 steps into 5 miles, and eventually we ran out of mountain and celebrated at the summit. That’s exactly Julia’s greatness. She’d walk alongside you until you ended up doing more than you knew was possible. Her personal warmth and professional wisdom enlightened our lives and made us all better. As sunlight brings life, Julia helped us come alive.
No matter if you called her Julie or Julia, Dr. Roark or Mom, you knew when you called on Julia she’d be there. We will miss Julia deeply and often. This loss is not something we will get over or move past. It is our new and painful reality. But, I encourage us all to remember that Julia left a hole in our hearts, but not a shadow. The light she brought is reflected in each one of us. The best way to honor her legacy is to live as she lived—in the light.
Each morning in Colorado Springs, the sun will rise and Pikes Peak will glow. We see the sun about 300 days a year. So every sunset when you see our sun and Pikes Peak in the sky together—think of Julia. Remember her strength to encourage us all, “just 50 steps more.” Remember the light she brought to our darkness and the light that showed us a new way. May the life she lived be an inspiration to the lives we touch.