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Murray Journal

Beloved long-time Murray High dance, sociology teacher dies unexpectedly

Jul 01, 2022 09:19AM ● By Julie Slama

Beloved Murray High School sociology teacher and Dance Company coach Leesa Lloyd died unexpectedly at the end of the school year. (Photo courtesy of Murray High School Dance Company)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

On Tuesday, Murray High Dance Company and sociology teacher Leesa Lloyd met with theater director Will Saxton briefly about the November musical, “Shrek The Musical,” with the intent to talk about the choreography, especially the big tap number, when they returned to school in August.

“She said, ‘I’m excited,’ and I said, ‘Me too;” that’s how we finished a lot of our conversations,” he said.

On Wednesday, she was at the faculty meeting and was “totally Leesa,” Principal Scott Wihongi said.

On Thursday, she was to meet with her Dance Company, but the teacher who always was at school by 6:30 a.m. every day without fail, didn’t show up—nor did she answer messages from the school.

“She never misses work; it was very unusual for her,” Wihongi said, having had worked with her for more than 20 years.

Lloyd, who taught at Murray High for 36 years and three years before that at Timpview High in Orem, had died in her sleep of natural causes that morning, May 26, Wihongi said. She was a couple weeks shy of her 63rd birthday and had no plans of immediate retirement.

“She always had plans that she was working on and always involved in many things,” he said. “This was her life. Her words were, ‘I’ll just keep working until I die.’”

Lloyd had taught sociology and sports psychology as well as had led the cheerleaders for three years, Spartonians for nine years and Dance Company for 36 years. She was named teacher of the year by Murray High School and the PTA in 2008 and 2009.

Wihongi broke the news to her long-time collaborators in the performing arts department, before sharing it with her Dance Company and the Murray community.

“It was really rough for the first several days,” Saxton said. “It was hard when we lost (instrumental director) Mr. (Rob) Wilson in 2015; he had leukemia for several years and it was sad, but it wasn’t a shock. That’s one of the most difficult things about this. It was completely unexpected. The four of us—Rob, Leesa, (choir teacher) Mr. (Alan) Scott and I—we were a dream team of collaboration. We really were. It was such a joy to collaborate with Leesa because she had the same passion for hard work and high quality. I trusted her implicitly and I knew that no matter what she said she was going to do, she would do it. There’s such a trust there that we’re not going to let each other down or slack off because we want to have a product that we’re proud of and that shows your students off in such a great way.”

Saxton remembers when they first met 16 years ago.

“She was the first teacher I met at Murray High School. She came down and introduced herself to me and made me feel very welcome. I remember she was ready to get to work on the musical. It was ‘42nd Street’ and was already picked out when I got here; she loved that musical because it’s a big dance musical and those were always her favorites. She loved the spectacle, the big, colorful lighting and production numbers. She liked elaborate things. It was her personality and how she approached her art. So, we just kind of hit the ground running on the musical that year and have collaborated well ever since,” he said. “She always was fun and always excited. She had so much energy and enthusiasm for everything—and always wanted to get to work.”

That same welcoming and caring feel continued through their friendship.

“When I was out with my cancer treatments (last year), Leesa was the only teacher who checked in with me, and it was on a regular basis, with emails and texts just to see how I was doing. I know others may have thought it was awkward or didn’t want to bother me, but she was not afraid to say, ‘how are you feeling, how are things going, we look forward to having you back.’ It meant a lot to me; it really did,” he said. “I’m going to miss her a lot. It’s just weird to think of her as gone because she was always so alive. She was so vibrant, energetic and had such a larger-than-life personality. It’s difficult to imagine someone who was so present and so alive as not being around anymore.”

In the spring, Lloyd held her last Dance Company concert, which Wihongi and his wife as well as Saxton attended.

“Her dance concerts always are amazing. She had a great mixture of small numbers, big numbers, choreographed numbers. I always looked forward to seeing her big spectacle of what she did with the dance number, the lighting, the costumes,” Saxton said. “We’re going forward with the musical in November and still planning on using the Dance Company in it; Lisa would have wanted us to move forward as planned. She always said, ‘The show must go on’ so that’s how we’re going to approach it. We’re going to dedicate the musical to her and make sure we honor her memory in the program and as much as possible with the choreography. I don’t know what it will be like without Leesa because she really was the heart and soul of the performing arts department. It’s hard to imagine what we’re going to be without her.”

Wihongi attended her viewing and Saxton was at her funeral, where her family shared that she was known for photo albums of every activity in her life, her legendary Christmas sugar cookies or a note with her loopy cursive and that she collected Barbie dolls.

“They had a beautiful set-up with her photo albums and her Barbie collection; she had all types of Barbies,” Wihongi said. “I had no idea about it. The one I liked the best was Elizabeth Montgomery and she was in the ‘Bewitched’ outfit.”

Saxton said he knew dance and performing arts have always been a big part of her life, but he learned a lot about her childhood, including that she had a Barbie collection.

“I always knew she loved nice things, fancy things and decorating. Her office has a ton of stuff in it, but it was always beautifully decorated, and she would cover her cabinet doors and her office window with beautiful fabric. She just knew how to take something and make it beautiful,” Saxton said. “I’m sure she loved Barbies and loved the way they were costumed. I didn’t know about it, but it doesn’t surprise me one bit. Her brothers also talked about how she wanted a bike and how she worked to earn that bike (which she rode to piano lessons). She was the only one in her family who ever owned a brand new car. If she wanted something, she did whatever it took to achieve it. Family was important to her and she was a big part of the Riverton community.”

Lloyd was the daughter of Sandra Newman Lloyd, Riverton’s first female mayor and Miss Riverton pageant director. Like her mother, who also had a passion for the arts and has the Riverton community center named after her, Leesa Lloyd was a pageant director for Murray for 27 years and was part of the Miss America Scholarship Organization for more than 44 years.

“She loved inspiring young people,” Saxton said. “She would talk to me about students who would be good to be involved in the pageant. She put as much work into that as she did with everything she worked on. She also served as the mentor for Miss Murray so it wasn’t just over when Miss Murray was crowned. She was always focused on quality; she never did everything half-way, she wanted to make sure it was done to the best of her ability so her protégées could do everything to the best of their ability. She knew a lot about Murray so she could help them be a good representative for Murray. Leesa was very smart, so she’d be behind the scenes making sure those girls have the resources, the knowledge and organization they needed.”

Former Murray City Cultural Arts manager Mary Ann Kirk worked with Lloyd when the city hosted the Miss Murray Pageant for several years in the Murray Park Amphitheater and coordinating the Miss Murray Royalty each year for the summer float season.

“We worked together on a number of projects,” Kirk said. “When we had an idea, we would sit down and brainstorm about how we could work together. She was a great collaborator and supporter for school and community arts programs. We both loved history; she was interested in the history of Murray City and often talked about the history of her own community of Riverton.”

Kirk was recognized one year by Lloyd and the Miss Murray Pageant as Woman of the Year.

“It is supposed to be a surprise and she called and asked if I was planning to come,” Kirk remembered. “I told her I couldn't be there—can't remember why. So, she called my son Jonathan and asked him to figure out a way to get me there. He was struggling to talk me into attending, so I think he told me what was going on. I wasn't overly excited about the focus on me, but I decided to play along and be gracious about the recognition. I tried to act surprised even though my whole family showed up to the event. Afterwards, Leesa came up to me and asked if I was surprised and we both laughed.”

Lloyd served on the Murray Arts Advisory Board for six years and Kirk said it provided a great connection between the city and high school.  

“We worked around each other's schedules at the high school to accommodate her needs for the dance company and our needs for community performances in the auditorium,” she said.

Lloyd also choreographed and provided volunteers for the opening and finale numbers for the citywide dance festival in 2017 that Kirk produced. In return, Kirk provided guest instructors to enhance her dance program.  

“She had a great sense of humor but also knew when her students needed to take things seriously. She demanded commitment to rehearsal schedules,” Kirk said. “Both my daughter and my future daughter in-law were in Dance Company, so I had an inside look at her incredible organizational skills. Her choreographic skills were second to none. It was fun to watch those skills highlighted in dance company concerts and the school musical. She encouraged respect for concert etiquette and would always welcome the audience and remind them that this was a concert not a sporting event. Very few people grasp the huge amount of time these art department teachers spend before and after school producing concerts and plays that give students a meaningful opportunity to develop skills and personal confidence while providing a rich cultural experience for the audience. Leesa dedicated her life to creating these opportunities.”

One of the touching memories of Lloyd Kirk cherishes is when she retired as the city’s first cultural arts manager.

“(Leesa) choreographed and staged the finale number (from “Newsies”) for my retirement celebration that included many performing groups. She even volunteered to sit with the technical staff to make sure the program went smoothly since we never had a dress rehearsal; she was a great tutor to high school lighting and sound technicians,” she said. “I will deeply miss her smile and sparkling eyes, but more importantly, the opportunity to share our love of the arts together.”