NASHVILLE (AP) — Details from the rich, full lives of the three adults killed Monday at a Nashville elementary school have emerged quickly in the aftermath, but information on the three 9-year-old children — whose lives ended tragically young — has been slower to publicly surface from a community buried in grief.
The children slain at The Covenant School were Hallie Scruggs, described by an aunt as “always on the go”; Evelyn Dieckhaus, her family’s “shining light”; and William Kinney, who had “an unflappable sprit.”
A woman who identified herself as Hallie’s aunt, Kara Scruggs Arnold, wrote on Facebook that Hallie was “incredibly smart, feisty enough to keep up with her 3 brothers and my 4 boys.”
Hallie had a “love for life that kept her smiling and running and jumping and playing and always on the go,” Arnold added in her post.
Hallie’s father Chad Scruggs is the lead pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church, which is associated with The Covenant School. The private Christian school has about 200 students from preschool through sixth grade, as well as roughly 50 staff members, according to its website.
Evelyn was described as the Dieckhaus family’s “shining light” on a GoFundMe page that has been set up for them. But her family, too, was reluctant to talk about her or the enormity of their loss.
Friends of the Kinney family set up an online fundraiser to help them with funeral expenses. A message posted on the GoFundMe page said William had “an unflappable sprit.”
“He was unfailingly kind, gentle when the situation called for it, quick to laugh, and always inclusive of others,” the page said. “He loved his sisters, adored his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and was always excited to host friends of every age. Sweet Will knew no strangers, and our hearts (are) broken for his family as they try to find their way forward.”
The adults who were killed were Katherine Koonce, 60, the head of the school, Mike Hill, 61, a custodian, and Cynthia Peak, 61, a substitute teacher.
In a video statement released Tuesday evening, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Peak was supposed to have dinner with his wife, Maria, after filling in as a substitute teacher at Covenant.
“Maria woke up this morning without one of her best friends,” Lee said, adding that Peak, Koonce and his wife had once taught together and “have been family friends for decades.”
Sandra McCalla, a former administrator at the high school Peak attended in Shreveport, Louisiana, said Peak served as the statistician at girls’ basketball games and track meets before graduating in 1979.
“She was busy in the background making good things happen,” said McCalla, who served as the principal of Captain Shreve High School for 30 years.
Chuck Owen, who knew Peak from childhood, said Peak’s father was a well-known doctor in Leesville, Louisiana, where the family lived before moving to Shreveport.
He said, “everyone knew her, knew her family” and that she was “just a sweet person from a sweet family.”
Owen added that Peak was a devout follower of God, and it did not surprise him that she was working at a Christian school.
“She told me that she got saved in college and that God’s love changed her life,” he said.
Nashville songwriter Natalie Hemby posted on Instagram that Peak “taught me how to swim. Keep my head above water… which is what we’re all trying to do right now.”
Peak’s family issued a statement saying their “hearts are broken,” and called Peak “a pillar of the community, and a teacher beloved by all her students.”
“She never wavered in her faith and we know she is wrapped in the arms of Jesus,” the statement said.
Koonce, the head of The Covenant School, was a woman of deep faith who saw educating kids as her mission.
“It’s what God called her to do,” close friend Jackie Bailey said.
“We’re in such shock,” Bailey added. “I was looking around my house, and every piece of cross stitch that I have on the wall, she did – she gave to me.”
One of them said: “A friend loveth at all times.”
“That’s Proverb 17:17,” Bailey said. “That’s the kind of person she was. She loved at all times.”
Bailey added: “If there was any trouble in that school, she would run to it, not from it. She was trying to protect those kids … That’s just what I believe.”
Koonce’s family said in a statement Wednesday that she “gave her life to protect the students she loved.”
“We are devastated by our loss but depending on our God for comfort and healing,” the family said. “It is our privilege to honor Katherine’s legacy and to celebrate her remarkable spirit.”
Before Koonce took the top role with Covenant, Anna Caudill, a former art teacher, worked with her for almost a decade at Christ Presbyterian Academy, another Christian school in the area connected to a Presbyterian Church in America congregation.
“She was an absolute dynamo and one of the smartest women I’ll ever know,” said Caudill, recalling how Koonce excelled at her day job while parenting her children, pursuing her masters and then her PhD, and writing a book.
Caudill, who grew up in several male-led Christian denominations, said Koonce was the first woman in such a setting to encourage her to keep learning and pursuing her life goals.
“She wasn’t Wonder Woman, but I never saw the two in the same place,” Caudill said.
Friends of Hill, the custodian, said they believed he would have died protecting the school’s children.
Pastor Tim Dunavant, of the Hartsville First United Methodist Church, said in a Facebook post that he hired Hill to work at Covenant more than a decade ago.
“I don’t know the details yet. But I have a feeling, when it all comes out, Mike’s sacrifice saved lives,” Dunavant wrote.
Hill’s family issued a statement saying, “We pray for the Covenant School and are so grateful that Michael was beloved by the faculty and students who filled him with joy for 14 years. He was a father of seven children … and 14 grandchildren. He liked to cook and spend time with family.”
Another pastor, Jim Bachmann, said Hill was “one of those people you cannot not like” and that he made a point of learning the names of all the students and talking to them.
Bachmann was the founding pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church, which runs the school, and is the current pastor of Stephens Valley Church, where Hill was a member and sometimes served as a greeter.
On those occasions, Hill would “dress up like he was going to meet the president of the United States,” Bachmann said. He added, “Everybody loved Mike, and he loved them back.”
Associated Press reporters Travis Loller in Nashville and Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed to this story. Sainz reported from Memphis. Finley reported from Norfolk, Virginia.