OGDEN — Next month, when students, faculty and staff return to Ben Lomond High School following an extended absence caused by the global pandemic, one of their own will be missing.
According to her obituary, on June 23, COVID-19 claimed the life of Darla Checketts, 58, a family and consumer science teacher at the school.
Tammy Brown-Johansen, who also teaches FACS classes at Ben Lomond, has been a friend and neighbor of Checketts’ for more than two decades. She doubts that the word got out to all the students, so it will be a difficult time when they return to school and Ms. Checketts is nowhere to be found.
“It’s going to be rough when the students come back and go, ‘Well, where is she?’,” Brown-Johansen said. “They’ll have questions. Some of them, these inner-city kids, bond with these teachers, and this will be hard.
“It’s a tragedy; it’s horrible. For the family, it’s devastating, but for us ...” Brown-Johansen said, trailing off.
After Checketts died, Brown-Johansen remembers being at the school one day when she ran into a couple of the student custodians who clean the building over the summer.
“One of the custodians was one of Darla’s students,” Brown-Johansen recalls. “I told her Darla passed, and this cute little student … contacted all her friends, and they collected money to have a tree planted in the forest in her name.”
Some of those students showed up at Checketts’ viewing.
“And then they gave me the $60 left over from their collection for me to give it to the family,” Brown-Johansen said.
For these students — many from lower-income families — that donation represented “a lot of money,” Brown-Johansen said.
According to her obituary, Darla Jean Payne Checketts was born Jan. 20, 1962, in Ontario, Oregon, the oldest of four children. She grew up in Kaysville, graduating from Davis High School in 1980, and was chosen as the Sterling Scholar in home economics.
Beginning at age 14, Checketts spent nine summers working in West Yellowstone, Montana, with the goal of paying for all her college expenses, according to the obituary. Her plan worked, and she graduated from Utah State University with a bachelor’s degree in home economics education.
A fan of the Peace Corps, Checketts spent two years teaching home economics at a high school in Sierra Leone, West Africa. She later taught at the high school in Malad City, Idaho, for five years.
In 1989, Checketts married Cameron Checketts in the Logan Temple, and they raised five children at their home in West Point. She was a stay-at-home mother, working at a local preschool when her children were at school.
Brown-Johansen says she and Checketts had a lot in common — they lived in the same neighborhood, their daughters were the same age, and the two women had studied the same major in college.
It was Brown-Johansen who approached Checketts about a teaching job at Ben Lomond High.
“As her kids got older and her youngest, twin boys were in high school, we were in need of another family and consumer science teacher,” Brown-Johansen said. “It was a part-time position, and Darla only wanted to work part time. I asked her to please come and work with the students at Ben Lomond.”
For five years, Checketts worked with Brown-Johansen and two other teachers in the FACS department at the school. She knew how to help students who were struggling in an academic setting, her colleagues say.
Ben Lomond High Principal Steve Poll remembers Checketts as a quiet but powerful force at the school.
“She was not one of those teachers who has a loud, big presence on campus,” he said. “She was more of a silent leader.”
Poll said Checketts chose to teach half-time at the school — every other day — so she could spend time with family.
“She still liked to teach, but she also wanted to be there for her grandkids,” Poll said.
Poll praised Checketts’ “strong connection” with her students. He said she was one of those dedicated teachers who would sacrifice her own personal time to help her charges.
Makenzie Thompson, who also teaches in the FACS department at Ben Lomond, frequently saw that personal sacrifice in action. In a social media post after Checketts’ death, Thompson wrote: “There were many lunches where she wouldn’t take a break because she was busy tutoring or letting students retake tests. ... She worked diligently to empower and teach her students enough so they could make better futures for themselves.”
Thompson also praised Checketts’ organizational skills, calling her “the most organized teacher I have ever met.”
“The poor dear had to share a classroom with me this past year and let me just say that I have kind of embraced the chaos of glitter everywhere and students leaving their stuff in each crevice like it’s their bedroom,” Thompson said. “Despite this, Darla just went with the flow and made the best of the situation.”
ALL ABOUT FAMILY
Brown-Johansen echoes the organized-yet-laid-back vibe of her friend. She said that although Checketts was incredibly clean and organized, she’d let her whole house get messed up playing with the grandkids.
“They’d be making something in the kitchen, and there’d be flour all over the place,” Brown-Johansen said. “But it was OK, because her grandkids were with her.”
On the day Thompson posted her social media tribute to the person she called her “sweet friend/work mom,” she and Brown-Johansen had just gone through Checketts’ classroom, collecting her personal belongings to return them to her family.
“Darla did not have many personal items at the school,” Thompson wrote. “They all fit in 1 box, but in that single box there were 3 framed pictures of her family.”
Thompson says that showed Checketts’ priorities. “She loves her children and husband so much and I know that she will continue to love and watch out for them,” she wrote.
However, both Thompson and Brown-Johansen say their friend saw her students as her “kids” as well.
“My only thing I’d want people to know is that she really, really, really cared about the kids at school,” Brown-Johansen said. “That’s the thing about working at Ben Lomond. It’s not a job; it’s a stewardship. If it’s not about the kids, you’re not doing it right. And she knew that, and she did it right.”
According to Brown-Johansen, Checketts’ son had recently returned home from an LDS mission.
“He was the first one sick, then she got it, and then her husband got it,” she said. “I didn’t even know she was ill. She was only ill one week.”
Brown-Johansen said Checketts had gone to the doctor the night before she died because she wasn’t feeling well and said she couldn’t breathe.
“They knew she had it ... but they sent her home; they didn’t think she needed to be hospitalized,” Brown-Johansen said.
The next day, her condition worsened. Her son, who’d been frequently checking on her, decided to take her back to the hospital.
“He went in to get her to take her to the emergency room and she was gone,” Brown-Johansen said.
Brown-Johansen remembers the last time she was with her friend. It was June 2, just three weeks before her death, and the teachers in the FACS department were meeting at the school to deep-clean the kitchen in the foods lab at the school. She doesn’t specifically remember their final conversation, but she’s fairly certain it had to do with either kids or school.
“It was always either talking about her children, or my children, or the kids at school,” she said. “That’s what we mostly talked about.”
COVID WAKE-UP CALL
Thompson says she’s taken the opportunity of her friend’s death to refresh her commitment to following the recommended safety guidelines during the pandemic — including wearing face masks and maintaining social distance in public.
“Even though the percentage of COVID-19 cases compared to the general population may not seem scary to some, please know that the family and friends of that percentage of people’s lives have been altered forever,” she writes.
Adds Brown-Johansen: “This has been a wake-up call to those who think COVID-19 isn’t real.”
Poll, the principal at Ben Lomond, said the personal nature of the loss makes it a bit more real for everyone involved.
“The thing that makes it seem a little more concerning is that it was somebody that we actually know,” Poll said. “It’s not a news story, it’s not somebody in New York, it’s not a number or a statistic — it’s somebody you know.”
Poll said he realizes that some educators may be uncomfortable about going back into the classroom this fall, but he said district and school administrators have been attacking the problem for months now.
“I can see teachers being more concerned because they haven’t been in on the day-to-day planning,” Poll said. “But the administration, we’ve worked on it all summer long, and we have a good plan.”
Still, Poll said Checketts’ death has been a shock to the entire community.
“It definitely hits home,” he said.
A viewing for Checketts was held July 10 in Layton; a graveside service followed the next day at the West Point City Cemetery.
Brown-Johansen said she feels “empty” and “cried forever” over the loss of her friend.
“It was like losing my sister,” she said. “Honestly, it makes me sad to talk about her, but it also makes me sad not to talk about her.”
As for Thompson, she said the family and consumer science department at Ben Lomond High will be forever altered.
“Even though I’ve only known Darla for 4 years, I feel like it’s been much longer,” she wrote in her online tribute. “I dread returning to school without my friend. Our team will not be the same without her.”