Outdoor classroom to be created in memory of beloved teacher

by Michele Collins

Sometimes the most important things you learn in life, you learn in second grade.

For second graders at Ellsworth Hill Elementary School, one teacher taught them to explore the outdoors and enjoy hands-on projects, to dig in the dirt, to get their hands dirty and always to enjoy learning about their world.

That teacher was Denise Lukingbeal, who died unexpectedly on Dec. 21, after touching the lives of more than 400 Hudson students over a 25-year career as an elementary educator.

Now Mrs. Lukingbeal is being honored by her family, friends and hundreds of doting community members through the planned construction of an outdoor classroom at Ellsworth.   

“We wanted her legacy to live on,” said Eric, Denise’s son, who lives in Oregon and created a GoFundMe site to raise money for the endeavor.  “We wanted to do something that she would have loved. She loved being a teacher, loved working at Ellsworth Hill, loved her fellow teachers there.”

Eric added that as he drove cross country in a snowstorm for his mother’s funeral and spoke with school officials about a partnership, he learned Ellsworth had already secured a grant to help with some of the costs for an outdoor learning center.

“The idea of the outdoor classroom seemed to fit perfectly,” he said. “I just remember what my mom was like, not only as a teacher but as a mother. She let us get paint on the floor to make projects, was the mom that was down in the dirt teaching us about gardening. She was the same way as a teacher. She dedicated her whole adult life to teaching kids about nature and science, and the outdoors. I knew this would be the perfect way to have her legacy live on.”

Jen Filomena, principal of Ellsworth Hill Elementary, described Denise as “all-in” when it came to her students and her peers.

“She believed in every single kid,” said Filomena. “She was also super creative, always helping with projects around the school, and was great at connecting with staff, actually with every person here.”

Denise retired in 2020. It was an unusual year due to the pandemic. Instead of having a traditional retirement party, the Ellsworth Hill staff put together a celebratory parade, riding by her Hudson home in their cars.

“We all surprised my mom and came to Ohio for her retirement parade,” Eric said. “She was so happy, and she just couldn’t believe all of the people who drove by and waved and honked their horns at her.”

Parade banners saying, “We love you, Denise,” and, “We will miss you,” have been replaced by dozens of Facebook and GoFundMe posts following her passing. She’s remembered as, “An outstanding teacher who truly loved all of her students,” in one post and even “hand’s down one of the nicest people I’ve known,” in another.

To date, the GoFundMe page has raised just over $47,500, where commentor Carol Jordan fittingly called the project “a living and lasting tribute to such a special person.”

“It just made us feel so good to see the impact my mom has had on so many people in Hudson. There are former students, parents of former students, co-workers and friends from the community who have all donated,” Eric said. “They also shared with us their memories of my mom. We know as a family what she has done for us, but it is really comforting knowing what she has done for all of these others.”

He added that his family sees the outdoor classroom as a way to continue her legacy of teaching. They also see it as a place to come and remember their wife, mom and grandmother.

“My sisters and I, and their kids can go there and remember my mom. My dad can walk around that garden, and there will be a physical reminder of her at the place she loved so much.”

“We are so happy to have the privilege of having this at Ellsworth Hill,” Filomena said. “There are pieces of Denise everywhere in this school.”

To learning more about the outdoor classroom or to donate to its creation, visit deniselukingbeal.com. ∞

Featured Photo: Denise Lukingbeal reacts with surprise and amazement at retirement car parade in her honor shortly after her 2020 retirement. The longtime Hudson educator and resident died suddenly in December. Photo submitted.