By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
FAIRFIELD — On a warm, windy Saturday morning in Chautauqua Park, youths and adults, many wearing bright pink T-shirts in honor of a beloved teacher who loved that color, walked the park’s trail in her memory.
Nohema Graber, a Spanish teacher at Fairfield High and devoted member of St. Mary Parish-Fairfield, died Nov. 2 in the park as she walked the trail she enjoyed so much. Two teenage students, Jeremy Goodale and Willard Miller, face trial later this year, charged with her murder.
“Mrs. Graber loved to walk here,” Sarah McAvan, a Fairfield High School senior, told a TV reporter interviewing her in the park along with six others seniors she serves with on student council. The seven young women organized the fundraising walk and were grateful to have the blessing of Nohema’s former husband, Paul Graber, they told the reporter.
Planning for some kind of event began shortly after the death of Graber, who taught all seven girls in Spanish II and Spanish III classes. “We all felt like it wouldn’t be right if we didn’t at least try to set something up. Honoring her life and showing what she meant to us has always been the main focus,” McAvan, a member of St. Mary-Fairfield, told The Catholic Messenger. “We want to focus on the walk, on her life and how much of a positive person she was instead of the tragedy that happened.”
“We thought a scholarship would be the perfect way to remember her,” said Danielle Breen, a senior who appreciated her teacher’s encouraging attitude toward her students and genuine interest in them. “I learned so much from her and in her class.”
Senior Mallory Lyon designed the T-shirt, seeking advice from Paul Graber, who gave his approval with a few tweaks. The front of the T-shirt reads “First annual Walk for Nohema 1954-2021” and the back reads, “Amor y Paz” (Love and Peace, in Spanish). “She’d say, ‘I’m not really into sports. All peace and love!’” senior Anna Dunlap said.
Paul Graber mingled with the walkers and other supporters of the event, but did not speak publicly during the event. He talked with The Catholic Messenger about his appreciation for the walk and the woman he loved for 50 years.
He said Fairfield High School Principal Brian Stone called him “out of the blue” in February to ask if he would meet with the seniors who had been students of Nohema Graber. They wanted to talk to him about a memorial event to fund a scholarship named in her honor. Paul Graber met with them.
“They really wanted my blessings,” he said. “This is the best idea they possibly could have come up with. It’s something Nohema would have wanted. She was a big supporter of anyone who had the passion to go on in their education.” His appreciation for the students “is beyond words. They really loved their teacher, as she did them. She cared for all her students.” She wanted her students “to know that each of them were capable of more than they realized themselves. She wanted them to tap into that brilliance.”
Nohema cherished her Catholic faith and loved serving as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist at St. Mary-Fairfield, said Paul, who is not Catholic. He said he has received great spiritual support from Father Nick Adam, pastor of St. Mary-Fairfield.
Although they divorced six years ago, the couple saw each other often and prayed together. On the night of her death, Paul said he couldn’t sleep and asked God for a sign “to assure me that she was where she wanted to be.” Paul and Nohema often lit a large green candle when they prayed together. He lit the candle that night and shortly afterward noticed that the candle had “become the most lovely color of lavender. It was ethereal. That was the moment that calmed my soul.”
The seniors at Fairfield High received a sign, themselves of Nohema’s lasting presence with the results of their fundraising efforts for a scholarship in Nohema’s name. A silent auction of baskets and other donations from the walk raised close to $5,000, which does not include the money generated from T-shirt sales, McAvan said.