By Madoline Markham
The last time Madison Howard saw Julie Yeager was not in math class, where Julie taught her Algebra I each weekday. It was in the Chelsea High School gym as she performed her majorette routine during a school basketball game last fall.
“That’s just who Julie was,” says Elizabeth Howard, Madison’s mom who also taught with Julie. “She was a huge supporter of all things Chelsea.”
Julie’s students will tell you she treated them like they were people, not just her students, and that them simply being in her classroom meant a lot to her. “She really made you feel like you could do it, and she treated it like she was learning along with you,” Madison says.
But what Madison and her classmates have missed the most since Julie passed away in December is her big smile that in turn made them smile just as big.
For many, Julie was the most caring cheerleader of a person they knew. Her personality was friendly and warm, and her wit quick. There’s no telling how many times her contagious laughter filled the halls at Chelsea Middle in her more than 20 years teaching at the school, how many people sought out the board outside her classroom that she wrote a new joke on each day, or how many times she did something uniquely thoughtful a colleague or student will never forget.
CHMS Principal Caroline Obert recalls how when she broke her elbow at the first school football game of the season last year, it was Julie who took her to the emergency room. “She was the person who was always there for anyone in the building and me in particular,” Caroline says.
Whenever a new teacher arrived at the school, Julie was likely the first to reach out to them to help make Chelsea Middle their new home. Michelle Nivens was only 21 when she first started teaching at CHMS back in 2000, and Julie quickly took her under her wing as a young teacher. “I would send her my angry emails for approval, and she would help me change my tone,” Michelle says. “She was very motherly and nurturing and the momma hen.”
Over the years, Michelle says Julie helped her stay true to herself. “I am a rule follower, and she was that way too,” she says. “There are so many regulations on teachers that it’s easy to want to relax on them. She helped me not feel bad about the fact that I was so fond of rules.”
Over the past five years, though, Michelle says she became even closer with Julie when Julie became the scorekeeper for the school’s volleyball games since Michelle is a coach for the teams. “It’s like when you are a kid and your mother is your mother, and then you become an adult and your mother is your friend,” Michelle says.
But Julie, of course, wasn’t just a scorekeeper for the team. She loved to praise the players and see them play their best, and she wasn’t afraid to remind them what they were capable of when they needed it. She was the same person in her classroom too.
Sam Haney taught with Julie for 20 years, 12 of them in the classroom next door to hers, and considers her like a sister. Over those years, he watched how come rain or shine, Julie was there to make sure her Pre-Algebra and Algebra I students learned what they needed to no matter their circumstances. “One of the kids was out sick for a long time, and she stayed and worked after hours or would go to their house so they would be able to make it to ninth grade with the rest of her classmates,” Sam says. “She would do that for anyone. Anytime someone had a special need, she was the first one to volunteer.”
Sam admits that math is not the easiest subject to teach but says Julie was good at being able to explain the subject more than one way and making sure the kids understood it. When it came to teaching new skills like factoring polynomials, she looked at them like a puzzle and taught her students how to break them down using different strategies.
Seventh-grade math teacher Melanie Elliott, who coached math teams with Julie, knew she had to prepare her students for Julie’s class, but that Julie would do the same before sending her students to high school. “She had high expectations for the kids to prepare those kids for high school geometry,” she says. “She would pay attention to what the kids didn’t know and made sure they understood things.”
But life wasn’t just about the classroom for Julie. For the past eight years she dated CHMS coach Lee Hibbs. Together they went on cruises and travelled to Miami and New Orleans to watch the University of Alabama play since Lee is a fan. Julie, however, went to Auburn and cheered for the Tigers. But Lee said that didn’t cause problems for them. “We only had one argument in seven or eight years, and that’s hard to do,” Lee says.
Julie was also a big fan of fireworks, especially the annual Big Kaboom show in Chelsea, and the Birmingham country band Deputy Five. “I came in second behind the fiddle player,” Lee jokes.
More than anything though Julie loved her family. Her son Paul, who went through CHMS himself, is now 28, and her daughter Hannah was tragically killed in a car accident in 2006 when she was 15. On Saturdays and during summers in years past you could find Julie helping her mom Seiko, who was Japanese, at her clothing alterations business in Hoover, and Julie remained close with her dad Ed, who lives in Pelham, after her mom passed away last summer. (Fun fact: Julie’s parents met in Japan, and she was born there.)
Whether they were with family or traveling, Lee says Julie would light up talking about a particular student learning something new.
Gary Black, who taught eighth grade with Julie for 13 years, remembers speaking to Julie last fall in the midst of the strange new normal of pandemic teaching. It had been a difficult year, and Julie felt it deeply. “She started to tear up because she didn’t think her students were getting from her what they needed,” he says. “I know she was doing a great job and that they were getting that they needed, but it wasn’t the same because she couldn’t develop those relationships with them. We talked for about 15 minutes, but by the time I left there was a smile on her face.”
Not long after that conversation, Julie called in sick after Veterans Day in November and would never return to her classroom. She passed away Dec. 9, 2020, at 56 years old.
After her passing Gary went by her classroom one morning. After walking past the empty message board—gone were Julie’s jokes of the day—he sat there for about 15 minutes to say good-bye, looking around at her photos, awards and keepsakes students had given her.
Somewhere in her classroom sat sets of letters she had her students write to themselves each school year that she’d send to them when they were seniors in high school—something her students always looked forward to and that signified that Ms. Yeager was still a part of their lives for years to come.
Of all the things in her classroom, though, the thing most people will perhaps remember is the James Spann bobble head she loved almost as much as the meteorologist himself.
“When I got up and left,” Gary recounts, “I tapped him on his head, and he was bobbling up and down nodding his approval of Julie Yeager.”