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Murray Journal

An hour glimpse into a lasting impact

Jun 04, 2024 01:42PM ● By Julie Slama

Murray Education Foundation Executive Director Jeanne Habel congratulates Murray High special education teacher Jessie Agiriga as a 2024 Pinnacle Award recipient. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

It’s a few minutes after 9 a.m.

She opens the door, stating the conference room was reserved several minutes ago. As the high school administrators gather up their belongings and leave, she sets down her the three oversized headshots of notable high school alumni. Amongst them, is former Murray School District Supt. Richard Tranter, who hired her.

She never takes a drink from her Dr. Pepper nor glances at her cellphone, giving those in the room her full, undivided attention.

She looks at them, ready to begin. She’s confident. She should be. She’s been doing this for 25 years.

Jeanne Habel is Murray Education Foundation’s executive director.

Habel began soon after the Foundation’s first golf tournament in 1999, which raised money to fund teachers grants.

“It took all year to distribute the $7,000 raised,” she said. “The teachers couldn’t believe we were giving them the money for their classrooms.”

This year, the golf tournament’s 128 slots for 32 foursomes sold out; the tournament raised $30,000, “but because of being self-sustaining, we were able to fulfill grants for $60,000,” said Habel, who has appreciated Sheila Johnson’s contributions for years with the Foundation and chairing the golf tournament.

The 140 teacher grants were funded during a three-hour meeting. 

“Through the years, we’ve funded microscopes, math manipulatives, chickens, field trips, assemblies, classroom sets of books, butterflies,” she said.

With many of the grants, there are stories. When fish, which were funded by the Foundation, were let go in Willow Pond, a girl watched a bird gulp up her release. 

“She was in tears and said, ‘I had named it,’ but what a great educational lesson,” Habel said.

Pickleball sets, which are still used today, were purchased for Riverview before the sport became widely popular. Rubber boots were given to the Kennecott Nature Center so schoolchildren’s feet wouldn’t get soaked on the banks of the Jordan River.

While the Foundation has purchased calculators or headphones, they won’t give money to support items such as computers, iPads, food or furniture. Habel said there are other avenues to secure those items.

“She uses the money wisely and knows the resources to best help our teachers and District,” said associate director Doug Perry.

Through the 24 years of coordinating the tournament, Habel has never played one round on the day.

“I like to be around the people. If I played, I could only talk to three people,” she said.

That, not Habel’s previous work “in the financial world,” is where she contributes her success.

“I know Murray. My kids went to Murray schools. My grandkids are here. It’s my connection to Murray that makes the difference,” she said.

Habel’s work in schools first began as a mother helping in the classroom. When asked to help raise funds for Horizon, she sold Christmas ornaments to local businesses to put on the school tree.

That caught the attention of then school principal Jan Evans, who encouraged Habel to apply and interview for the Foundation’s part-time position. 

“Those first few years were really fun,” she said, then smiled. “Then, it became more fun.”

Habel is the face of the Murray Education Foundation. 

While it was created in 1981 under former Supt. Ron Stephens as a way for businesses and individuals to take an active role in improving Murray District schools and help establish the nature center, Habel has built the Foundation, brick by brick—literally.

When Murray High was rebuilt in 2003, Habel was one of two who carefully laid out donor bricks to be built in the northwestern school entrance, where bricks continue to be contributed today.

“We wanted to make sure it was done right,” she said, adding that about $40,000 was raised through the brick sales.

As the executive director, Habel oversees getting funds for students. At first, it was obtaining backpacks and items in the classroom; now it has stretched to help with food and housing insecurities. 

“We’ve had an influx of refugees and new families coming into our country and our District without basic needs,” Perry said.

Habel isn’t timid; she can’t afford to be.

“I’ve beat on many a door. I’ve heard people say, ‘No, not now’ and I’ve said, ‘I’ll be back next year.’ I don’t take no for an answer. Tenacity is a good quality. You can’t take ‘no’ personally,” she said.

For years, Habel has sought grants and donations to help students. She can name who made contributions, who helped, who gave of their time to support the Foundation’s initiatives.

However, upon learning from Perry that a business foundation gave $12,000 to cover outstanding costs on students’ lunches and breakfasts, Habel was surprised.

“I hadn’t heard that,” she said. “Our community is generous. The more we get the word out, the more people want to provide, to educate and to lift these students. A lot of people want to help. There are a lot of caring people in Murray. I haven’t done this alone. It takes a village. We have done this work together.”

Habel relies upon some of those generous businesses to help support the Pinnacle gala, the annual awards given to the District’s top teachers, classified employees and volunteers. 

“Our teachers do so much for Murray children, and we felt that they needed to be recognized, honored with our accolades,” she said, adding that she worked alongside Tranter and Pinnacle chair Sharon Westover to start the recognition program.

It’s an acknowledgement that started before the first gala in 2003, which had limousines drive the awardees on an icy January night to the ceremony that lasted until nearly midnight. That and every year, students introduce their teachers for the awards while Murray High School students provide entertainment, the flower arrangements and cook and serve the food.

Before that first event, Habel worked with designer Doug Clawson and sculptor and bronzer Jim Rennert to create a sculpture of a teacher guiding a student upon a pile of books. Since its inception, about 150 people have been awarded that statuette.

Much of the recognition looks the same, although there were some lessons were learned along the way.

“We moved away from the limousines after about four years; we couldn’t control the (transportation) delays. We moved the gala to March, when the weather is usually a little better, but it’s always been a student-involved night, and it’s gone smoothly,” she said.

Except for 2020. 

“The meat was in the oven when we got a call saying that we’re closing the District because of COVID, there wouldn’t be the Pinnacle gala that night. I emailed everyone and we put signs on the door. I thought, ‘that’s OK, we’ll just honor them in May,’” Habel said.

The recipients from 2020 were honored in March 2021. The 2021 recipients were honored two months later.

This year, the program’s 21st, started without a hitch.

After the Pinnacle gala committee decided on which five teachers, a classified employee and a volunteer to honor, a group of about 15 high school and District administrators, Foundation members, friends and three small children in red and white heart pajamas gathered in the high school office waiting to recognize the first awardee. Some held onto flowers and gift cards. 

Habel asked the principal to guide the group to the special education teacher’s classroom, allowing others to lead before she took her turn to congratulate the well-deserved recipient.

“This is always so much fun to surprise them. One year, we had to put a husband in the closet so his wife (who was the recipient) didn’t see him beforehand,” she said.

Tranter said Habel was amongst the best employees he had hired.

“She is an extremely dedicated person with vision and a lot of drive,” he said. “She always thought of students and teachers above everything else.” 

The meeting in the conference room was wrapping up when a knock was heard on the door. 

“Are you almost done? We have this room at 10.”

Habel replied, “Yes, we have two minutes.”

She is stepping down June 30.

“She will leave a big void in the Murray School District,” Tranter said. 

Perry, who also serves as the District spokesman and has had more than 15 years of planning events for the Utah Association of Counties in his background, will head the Murray Education Foundation.

“I hope to continue to build on what Jeanne has done to support our students,” he said.

Habel, who will join her husband into retirement to travel, garden and enjoy her grandchildren, said when she was hired the goal was to make Murray Education Foundation self-sustaining.

“It was awesome when we got there. We’ve been self-sustaining for probably the last five years, but I wasn’t done,” Habel said. “I was having too much fun. I still am. I’ll still be around.”

She picks up the photographs that are going to be reframed to leave a lasting mark on the alumni wall. She promptly walks out.

It’s 10 a.m. λ