Staff and parents at Rock Hill’s Richmond Drive Elementary School were “deeply saddened and hurting” after the drowning death of teacher Heather Dobbins over the weekend.
Dobbins, 37, died Saturday after a tubing accident on the Saluda River in Pickens County near Easley. She had taught English as a second language at the school since 2000 and was beloved by students, parents, and peers.
“Heather Dobbins touched thousands of lives, easily,” said Pat Maness, principal at Richmond Drive. “She was a fantastic teacher, as devoted and committed as anyone we have ever had here. She was just plain terrific, and we are all deeply saddened and hurting today.”
Maness met with staff at the school Monday and is in the process of notifying parents.
Dobbins was married but did not have children of her own, Maness said.
“Every child she had in class, she was like a surrogate parent,” Maness said. “She loved the students, nurtured them, and they loved her back.”
Dobbins was tubing with her husband, Steve, and two other people around 3:30 p.m. Saturday, said Kandy Kelley, Pickens County coroner. The four had rented equipment and were tubing near Easley on the river that serves as the boundary between Pickens and Greenville counties, Kelley said.
The autopsy Monday showed nothing surprising and was consistent with a drowning, Kelley said.
The river spot in most years is not known for tubing – it is the first drowning Pickens officials have investigated there, Kelley said – but this year’s heavy rains have meant a larger number of people tubing on the river. The water level is higher on the river than in past years, Kelley said.
Dobbins graduated from Clover High School in 1993 and from Winthrop University in 1997, according to Rebecca Partlow, Rock Hill school district’s executive director of personnel. Before joining the district, she worked with several community organizations, including Safe Passage, a Rock Hill group that helps victims of domestic and other kinds of violence.
Missy Brakefield, the director of federal programs in the Rock Hill school district, worked with Dobbins for 10 years. She said teaching wasn’t a job for Dobbins, it was a mission.
“Heather’s students were her students for life,” Brakefield said.
Dobbins often followed the lives of her students on the weekends, over the summer and long after they’d left Richmond Drive and the school district, she said. She was even known to travel to see her former students play in college sports.
“The things about Heather that are remembered so fondly are her kindness, her generosity and how much she cared about her students, as well as her peers,” Partlow said.
Dobbins’ generosity also extended to Lihua Su, the Chinese teacher at Richmond Drive, Partlow said. Dobbins was part of the team from the district that traveled to China last summer, and when “Ms. Su,” as she’s known at Richmond Drive, arrived to live in the United States, her apartment wasn’t ready. Dobbins and her husband opened their home.
“I think that bond started then and just continued,” Partlow said. Su also spent the holidays with Dobbins and her family.
But according to all who knew her, that was just the way Dobbins lived her life.
“She will be forever missed and always in our hearts,” Brakefield said.
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065 Rachel Southmayd • 803-329-4072