Royalton teacher was an example of focus, determination and heart-felt passion

Nicole Kunkel’s zest for life impacted countless people

By Jennie ZeitlerStaff Writer

Steve, left, and Nicole Kunkel shared many outdoor activities, including hunting. ”Nicole was always up for a challenge and found a kindred spirit in her husband,” said fellow English teacher, Sheri Menden. “They challenged themselves physically, mentally and spiritually in nature.”

Courage, grace and dignity are words that express Nicole Kunkel’s determination to live life to the fullest and her strength in the face of cancer’s blows.

Kunkel taught middle school English in Royalton. She was diagnosed with primary breast cancer and secondary liver cancer in early summer 2010. After finding out the cancer had spread to her brain in early February 2012, she quit teaching to undergo treatments, but started the 2012-2013 school year in the classroom.

“She loved teaching and wanted to be able to do that,” said Royalton High School principal Joel Swenson. “She was passionate about making sure kids could read and write, and was always working on becoming a better teacher.”

Her last day in the classroom, after 12 years in Royalton, was Oct. 9. Her battle with cancer ended Nov. 11, at age 43.

Kunkel passed away on a Sunday evening, and the next morning at school many students were wearing pink. “Word had already gotten around,” Swenson said.

That Thursday, KCLD 104.7 in St. Cloud named Kunkel as the “Teacher of the Week.”

“Within 24 hours of her death, KCLD had received more than 400 e-mails from students and staff nominating her,” said Swenson.

Hundreds of family members, students, friends and community members attended the wake Nov. 15, in Sauk Rapids.

Kunkel’s husband, Steve, Royalton’s band director for more than 25 years, played the guitar and sang a song for his wife.

“He said he had prayed with Nicole to have the strength to do it,” said Swenson.

“It’s an oxymoron to call it an ‘upbeat wake’ but I think people there felt better leaving than when they came,” said Royalton history teacher Boyd Snyder.

High school classes were cancelled Friday, Nov. 16 to allow staff and students to attend the funeral, which was held at St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral in Minneapolis.

“We all lost a friend,” said Swenson. “The numbers of alumni, students, parents and staff there gave a glimpse of how many people she impacted.”

“The passion Nicole had for her students could be seen in the numbers that attended her review and funeral,” said fellow English teacher Sheri Menden.

“These students came from all walks of life — current students, college students and students graduated and working,” she said.

“She had high expectations for the kids,” said Snyder. “Everybody after a tragedy says great things about someone, but she really lived it. Down the road, her students will be saying they are glad they had that quality person for a teacher.”

“One young man whose personal tragedies could consume his own life walked humbly up to Steve Kunkel and offered a hug, verifying the respect he had for this special woman,” Menden said.

“When bad news came, three words keep coming to mind to describe the way she handled the things that were happening — courage, grace and dignity,” said Swenson. “She would show momentary fear at a setback, but then there was incredible resolve.”

“Nowhere was her fighting attitude more obvious than at the beginning of this school year when Nicole returned to teach while fighting cancer,” Menden said. “She came back to do what she loved most. Yet, while teaching, she remembered those around her. During the first week, she offered one of the new teachers a book telling which plants put out the most oxygen so her classroom would have better air quality. I mentioned to her how sore my throat was after the first week of school and she went to her room and returned with a bag or organic cough drops.”

“She was unique, always on the go,” Snyder said. “I teased her about that one day. She told me about a time when she was 14 and very bored and she made a deal with herself — that once she grew up she was never going to be bored again. She lived up to that.”

“Nicole, Sheri Menden and I became a very close English department, sharing the same vision of challenging students to become good writers,” said fellow English teacher Ron Makela.

“To say that our English department is strongly connected can be shown in what happened at the beginning of one of our school years,” Menden said. “When Ron, Nicole and I returned for the workshop, we were excited to share our favorite summer reads. Ron read ‘The Bone Collector,’ Nicole read ‘The Lovely Bones’ and I read ‘The Bonesetter’s Daughter.’ We laughed about that coincidence through the years.”

“She taught so much more than English,” Swenson said. “Having had anorexia at one time, she was a strong advocate for young women. She was one of the deepest people I’ve ever known.”

“Nicole was a fighter; she loved a challenge. She dove in and gave it her all,” Makela said.

“She was persistent as Gandhi when it was something she believed in,” said Snyder. “She was peace-loving and spiritual, a non-violent person. She had that rare quality of getting her point across without raising her voice.”

“She was a little whip of a woman who could stand up to the toughest of students,” Menden said. “It was humorous to approach her shaking in the face of a bulk of a student while she explained just why a certain behavior was irrevocably wrong. In most cases the student walked away with head hanging, knowing that Nicole had just offered a truth about life. She had the courage to stand up for what she knew was right, and this became a model students could use for themselves.”

“She wasn’t ever the life of the party but she was very deep,” Snyder said. “You could have a great conversation with her and forget all about how much time had passed.”

“Books were very important for Nicole as she strongly believed in the importance of being a lifelong learner,” Menden said.

“Mrs. Kunkel was a beautiful person in every regard,” said Royalton graduate Kellie Lippert Bernal. “She emanated kindness and patience with every student, every day. In spite of the myriad of difficulties inherent to teaching Shakespeare to 13 and 14-year-olds, nobody would have ever known it if Mrs. Kunkel was frustrated. She was a vital part of the school and the entire community. Every day she put her heart and soul into showing the kids and the community that she believed in us, and that we were worth her creative energy and time. Whether it was running alongside the marching band to give us water, or running alongside her cross country team to tell them they could go one more mile, Mrs. Kunkel was someone you could count on to be there for you mind, body, and soul. We wish to honor her not only for the difference she made in each of our lives, but for her final lesson too: life isn’t always fair and great people die too soon. But what will never die is the light she left in all of us — the whisper in our hearts that grace, courage, and love remain infinite.”

“It was an honor to have the chance to work with someone like that,” Swenson said. “She was incredible.”

“Nicole’s quest for knowledge also gave her a strong faith and spirituality. Even though her battle with cancer took her physically from this world,” said Menden, “it is that strength of spirit which will remain in those who knew her.”