Popular Tulare ag teacher dies while attending national convention. Tributes flow in

Tulare Joint Union High School District agriculture teacher Kevin Koelewyn, center, died recently while attending the National FFA Convention in Indianapolis. This photo was taken at the state FFA convention in April.
Tulare Joint Union High School District agriculture teacher Kevin Koelewyn, center, died recently while attending the National FFA Convention in Indianapolis. This photo was taken at the state FFA convention in April. Special to The Bee

The FFA community is in shock after one of its most highly respected teachers, Kevin Koelewyn of Tulare Joint Union High School District, died over the weekend.

Koelewyn, 52, was attending the national FFA convention in Indianapolis when he was found in his hotel room on Oct. 25. He was taken to an area hospital where he died on Sunday, Nov. 4.

News of Koelewyn’s death spread quickly in the tight-knit agriculture education community. A teacher for nearly 30 years, Koelewyn was remembered by friends as a mentor, good friend, loving family man, Christian and devoted teacher.

“He was the best,” said former student Dipak Kumar, who now attends the prestigious Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “He was the best teacher, the best coach and the best mentor. He was all those things and more.”

Kumar excelled under Koelewyn’s guidance as a top-notch coach for the FFA’s public speaking competitions.

“I worked hard, but he worked even harder,” Kumar said. “I truly believe that if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be where I am today. He made me believe I could do it.”

It was also Koelewyn’s expertise in coaching public speaking that got him to the national convention. He was overseeing the national public speaking competition.

‘Incredible work ethic’

Fellow teachers said Koelewyn’s commitment to his students, the FFA and his colleagues was unrivaled.

“He had such an incredible worth ethic and an incredible faith in God,” said Mike Mederos, “He had his own personal relationship with Jesus Christ and he was not afraid to let it show.”

Mederos described his relationship with Koelewyn as personal and professional.

“We were very much like brothers,” he said. “We joked, had deep talks, argued, reconciled, and go out to lunch. As ag teachers we were all part of the same family and I could count on him whenever I needed him. You know, they say that some family you are born with and some family you gain along the way. That was Kevin.”

Others said Koelewyn went out of his way help young ag teachers get settled in their jobs.

Jill Sperling was one of those teachers. She said Koelewyn helped her adjust to her new job in a nearby school district by serving as a mentor for several years.

“He wanted to make sure that new teachers had what they needed to be successful for their students,” said Sperling, who is the central region agriculture education supervisor at the California Department of Education.

‘Hero in our family’

But Koelewyn was so much more than a mentor to her and her husband. He became a good friend and a shoulder to cry on, especially during a difficult period in their lives when their 7-year-old son was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and was given a 50 percent chance of survival. It was Koelewyn who helped convince the family to seek treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

One of Koelewyn’s three children successfully went through cancer treatment at the same hospital.

“I was against going out there, but Kevin and his wife, Cathy, were instrumental in helping us to understand more about St. Jude and the care they provided,” Sperling said. “He is a hero in our family. Because I don’t know what would have happened if we decided not to go.”

During the Sperlings’ eight-month stay, Koelewyn and a fellow teacher even drove the family’s truck to Memphis so they could get around.

“He was just one of those special kind of people,” Sperling said.

Sperling, who also attended the national convention, saw Koelewyn in passing last week. They spoke briefly. He asked about her son, who has been cancer-free for seven years, and she asked about his daughter, who is also a cancer survivor.

“It was like we were passing each other on the street, knowing that we would probably talk later,” she said.

Memorials planned

Shay Williams-Hopper, also an agriculture teacher with the Tulare district, said she has been comforted by the outpouring of support for her friend and colleague. Along with being a teacher, Koelewyn was well-known for being a youth baseball coach. He coached his son for many years in Hanford, where the family lived.

A candlelight vigil will be held on Thursday at the Bob Hill Youth Baseball Complex, 1098 Campus Dr. in Hanford, from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.

On Nov. 30, the Tulare FFA is hosting a benefit dinner at the Tulare County Fairgrounds, 620 K St., at 6 p.m. Tickets are $25 per person, with proceeds to benefit the Koelewyn family.

“He touched so many lives,” said Williams-Hopper. “He was a man of upmost character who loved his students, had a passion for teaching and was always there to support you in any way he could. He has helped better our industry and our profession.”