Apr. 10—Stacey Rygh and several friends huddled close together on a bench outside Century Elementary School in Grand Forks on a chilly, cloudy afternoon Friday, April 9.
A crowd of teachers, friends, family members, students and others soon gathered at this spot on the school playground to dedicate the bench in honor of the memory of Stacey's husband, Tim Rygh. He was a beloved teacher who taught at this school since 1995 and died from COVID-19 on Dec. 22 after 44 days in the hospital. He was 49.
After her husband's death, Stacey Rygh decided to use some of the funds that were donated to the family to purchase the bench.
"I thought I'd really like to have a bench at a place where he taught for 26 years," she said.
On Friday, a few days after it was installed, the bench was draped with a quilt made by Maxine Norman DeNeece, a family friend, who used Tim's T-shirts in crafting the quilt. She had lost her husband, too; it happened suddenly, 24 years ago when she was only 50.
During the program, teachers, other adults and students stepped forward to offer their thoughts on the qualities they most admired and their fondest memories about Rygh.
Principal David Saxberg described the teacher, who became a good friend and someone he could always rely on, by using each letter in his name and praised him as "inspiring," "young at heart" and "gentle."
"I loved the guy," Saxberg said.
Jim Stockeland, who knew Tim for about seven years, said he would meet his friend every Friday for conversation at a coffee shop.
Tim had a simple, guiding philosophy, Stockeland said: "Love God and love people."
Several colleagues and friends spoke about the traits that had endeared him to so many.
Joe Wellen, who took over Tim's class, first as a student teacher, last fall, said, "Everything I know about teaching is from him. I have nothing but thanks for that."
Even as Tim's health declined, "he was texting me and Zooming every day. I told him, 'I'll take care of it here, you take care of yourself'."
"He was a great example, showing me that students are first, then you," Wellen said.
Tim's fifth-grade students also read prepared statements, conveying their thoughts about an extraordinary teacher.
Kellan Bouvette, 11, said, "I knew him since I was in second grade. I'll always remember how kind and thoughtful he was to all the students and wanted the best for everybody, whether he knew them or didn't know them so much. And how much he was involved with students and everyone else in the school."
"We will never forget him," Kellan said, "and hopefully he will never forget us."
Some who spoke had to choke back tears.
At the end of the dedication program, in honor of the years Tim taught at Century — where he started his teaching career — Saxberg released 26 balloons, a medley of the school colors, red, white and blue. The school's fifth-grade students were given balloons that they released too, along with a loud cheer for "Mr. Rygh!" as the balloons ascended into the sky.
Standing nearby, Brent Miller, a retired Century Elementary fifth-grade teacher, said he first met Tim, a then-UND student, about 25 years ago "when he came to my classroom at Ben Franklin" to fulfill a college requirement.
Later, as a teaching colleague at Century, Miller remembered how much he enjoyed after-school intramural activities with Tim and "playing with the kids, because that's what Tim liked to do too, playing with the kids. He was a big believer in kids being outside."
"(Tim) would throw the football with the kids and he ran races against them, but the kids never beat him. He didn't believe in letting kids win," Miller said. "But if a kid did win, they felt good because they knew it wasn't a gimme."
"He had a heart for people, he was always positive," Miller said. "I feel like I'm a better person because I knew him."
After the dedication, Stacey Rygh, who had met her husband when both were UND students in 1990, said, "He was so sweet, kind and loving." They'd been together for 30 years, nearly 28 as a married couple, she said.
She showed several photos on her phone of him in happier times, including a shot of him distance-teaching Oct. 29, the picture of health only days before his health began to fail.
Before being stricken with coronavirus, he was "healthy, active; he worked out," she said.
In the hospital, he was placed on a ventilator Nov. 16, but never regained consciousness.
She and her children — Brayden, 21; Sophie,19; and Sadie, 17 — and those who knew and loved him are left to carry on now, inspired by his example.
"We really miss him," Stacey said. "And we can't believe he's gone."