Heather Pretzello returned to Beth Newsome's classroom at Thomson Middle School on Monday morning.
The Thomson High School Junior thumbed through a stack of old flags - each signed by classes of the veteran educator's students - until she found one inked with her own name. She smiled as she held up a lipstick tube Mrs. Newsome had so much trouble trying to close the week before. And she took time to help Mrs. Newsome's sixth grade language arts students adjust to a stark reality: Their teacher wouldn't be back.
"They were shocked, and didn't want to believe their teacher is gone," Heather said. "But it helped many of them to go back into the classroom and be with all her stuff. She had Georgia Tech stuff and frogs all over the classroom."
Mrs. Newsome was found dead Friday afternoon in a rural patch of Warren County, lying near her stuck car on a path frequented by hunters and ATV enthusiasts. She'd been reported missing on Thanksgiving Day.
An autopsy on Monday didn't bring investigators any closer to finding out why the 58-year-old Glascock County resident died. Warren County Coroner Paul Lowe said he's ordered toxicology tests, but those results could take weeks.
Meanwhile, state and local authorities promise to keep working until an answer is found.
"We do an in-depth investigation into any death not associated to a pre-existing terminal illness," said Gary Nicholson, special agent in-charge of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Region 7 office in Thomson. "We will continue to conduct interviews, while we are awaiting the results from the crime lab. We don't cover our eyes with blinders."
A time to remember
Thomson Middle School Principal Claude Powell remembers teaching with Beth Newsome decades ago at Pine Street Elementary. She had just come to McDuffie County from the Glascock County school system, while Mr. Powell was serving as a P.E. teacher and assistant football coach.
Mrs. Newsome had taught at Thomson Middle since 1991, but she'd been an educator for 30 years, 22 of those in McDuffie County. She was the middle school's Teacher of the Year last year. She taught English, grammar and reading to students, and she taught other teachers how to teach reading. She was a team leader, a yearbook sponsor and a master teacher, meaning student teachers were placed with her for their apprenticeship.
"We're going to have some deep holes to fill around Thomson Middle School, because she was involved in so many things around here," said Mr. Powell, who met with TMS teachers on Sunday to inform them of the loss and discuss plans for the return to school. "She had her fingers stirred in many places. Her life crossed paths with so many people."
Mr. Powell said he told sixth grade students at TMS on Monday that Mrs. Newsome would expect them to forge ahead, excel and achieve their goals, something Heather believed, also. Although she will not be required to remain in the sixth grade classroom, Heather knows it is where she belongs.
"I am going to stay. I think that's what she would want me to do. She would tell me to stay and tough it out," Heather said.
It's that fighting and encouraging spirit that many at TMS were remembering as classes resumed after the Thanksgiving break.
"She was just a wonderful person," said Aaron Hall, the PE teacher and a football coach at TMS. "She was always willing to help another teacher. I am currently working on my specialist degree, and she was always willing to do whatever she could to help me. She's going to be dearly missed."
On Monday, the school had clergy and youth ministers, as well as all the counselors, school psychologists and social workers from every school in the county present to help students deal with the loss.
Mrs. Newsome's students made cards to send to her family in hopes of boosting their spirits, said Heather, who worked in Mrs. Newsome's classroom for the past four weeks as part of the school-to-work clinical program. Heather said one of the students came up with the idea of making cards for Mrs. Newsome's family.
"It seemed to help (the students)," she said.
And the students continue to think of ways to honor Mrs. Newsome. Each year during the holidays, the middle school holds a Toys for Tots drive. This year, the toy drive is dedicated to the memory of Mrs. Newsome, according to Mr. Powell. In fact, the funeral announcement at Beggs Funeral Home requests donations be made to the toy drive in care of the middle school in lieu of flowers. Still, it's only a start in the grieving process for all who knew and loved her.
"She had an impact on a lot of kids," Assistant Principal Neal Tam said. "They talk about how tough she was because she had high expectations and demands, but those were the ones who were the most upset, who earlier in the year said she was mean, but they knew she loved them, and wanted them to do the best they could do, and she demanded it."
More questions than answers
Mrs. Newsome was reported missing about 11 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day by her son-in-law, who lives out of state, according to Glascock County Sheriff Dean Couch.
A little more than 24 hours later - and just hours before Sheriff Couch planned to make a public appeal for help in finding Mrs. Newsome - deer hunters stumbled upon her body, lying about 10 feet from where her 2002 Toyota Camry had gotten stuck in sandy terrain along a wooded path leading off Georgia Highway 123 in the Shoals Community. The pathway narrowed as it ended, blocked by pine trees. Mrs. Newsome was found lying face down, fully clothed in the pine straw, Mr. Lowe said.
Sheriff Couch said Mrs. Newsome's son, Josh, said she was taking some clothing items for donation when she left her residence off Georgia Highway 80 in Glascock County about 9:30 a.m. last Wednesday and never returned home.
Monday's autopsy, performed at the Georgia State Crime Laboratory in Decatur, revealed no sign of trauma and no indications of foul play, according to Mr. Lowe.
"It's basically a coroner's investigation right now," said Warren County Sheriff Joe Peebles. "We're just trying to assist them at this point."
A family mourns
Mr. Powell said he remembers seeing Mrs. Newsome as she left school last Tuesday.
"She was full of life and as happy as could be - looking forward to the Thanksgiving weekend," he said.
The Newsome family had planned to enjoy Thanksgiving Day with Mrs. Newsome's family near Atlanta, according to Sheriff Couch. Today, the family will gather to remember Mrs. Newsome at Beggs Funeral Home in Thomson.
Mr. Powell said he visited with Mrs. Newsome's husband, Gaynor, her son, Josh and daughter, Paige, on Sunday morning. Heather visited the Newsomes that day, too.
And on Monday, the family remained in the prayers and thoughts of folks around Thomson Middle School. Mr. Powell, Mr. Tam and Mr. Hall will be among the pallbearers at Mrs. Newsome's funeral.
"I went to school with both of her children, Paige and Josh," said Mr. Hall. "Outside of being a teacher, she was a great mother. She did a good job. Mostly, I feel really sorry for her own children, and the children in her classroom."
And, even though she's gone, Mrs. Newsome's influence will continue in the classroom. Heather plans to pursue being a teacher and wants to eventually teach in a sixth grade classroom after graduation.
"I was leaning more towards working with younger kids," she said. "But after handling this situation I really do want to (teach sixth grade) now. Their emotions are everywhere, but they are really good kids, just very emotional. I was like that at one time and I see her working with them now, like she did me back then.
"She was more than a teacher, she was a best friend."