Laguna Beach school community remembers beloved El Morro principal

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El Morro Elementary students comfort each other during a vigil for principal Chris Duddy on Guyer Field Wednesday night. Photo by Mitch Ridder.

By Megan Miller, Special to the Independent

A crowd of at least 200 parents, students, teachers, and school staffers gathered Wednesday evening at Laguna Beach High School to grieve for El Morro Principal Chris Duddy, who died in his sleep Tuesday.

Duddy served Laguna Beach schools for 24 years, 17 of which were at El Morro Elementary. The 57-year-old educator was slated to retire June 30. School staffers and families gathered under overcast skies on Guyer Field to remember Duddy’s warm smile and sense of humor.

“We know it takes time to process a loss like this, but today is an amazing example of the power of our community,” Laguna Beach Unified Supt. Jason Viloria said.

Duddy is survived by his wife and two children.

El Morro Elementary had planned to host its annual open house Wednesday night before the event was canceled in light of Duddy’s passing. The open house would have been his last, and was one of his favorite events as he loved to showcase the work of his pupils and colleagues, Viloria said.

A Thursday night Board of Education meeting has also been rescheduled for next week.

Orange County Dept. of Education’s Crisis Response Network responded by dispatching eight mental health coordinators across Laguna Beach’s four public campuses, department spokesperson Ian Hanigan said. Counselors were available at the vigil for grieving students, staffers, and families, and are expected to remain at El Morro Elementary in the coming days for additional support.

A row of white linen tables at the vigil displayed photos of Duddy with students. An array of colorful daisies, roses, and sunflowers were passed out to attendees, and electric candles were available to light. Families were encouraged to write letters sharing their favorite memory on heart-shaped cards.

A heart-shaped note left by an El Morro family remembers Principal Chris Duddy during a vigil on Wednesday at Guyer Field. Photo by Mitch Ridder

Viloria recalled one of his first times visiting Duddy at El Morro.

“We were walking and talking, and he knew every student’s name,” Viloria said. “He prided himself on knowing every student’s name… honestly, Chris was like a rockstar on campus and every kid wanted to say hi to him.”

Liz Black, who worked at El Morro for four years and also served as the school’s former PTA president, remembered Duddy as “genuine, kind, and warm to everyone.”

“He would light up the room with his positive energy and smile,” Black said.

Duddy was also known for his green Volkswagen bus, which he would take students for rides in. Even before they learned of his plans to retire, El Morro staffers jokingly proposed a design for this year’s T-Shirts that included Whiskers the Seal–the school’s mascot–driving the iconic Volkswagen with a surfboard on top, a tribute to Duddy’s passions.

“There was no kinder man,” School Board President Carol Normandin said, adding, “His passing leaves a void which will never be filled.”

She shared Duddy’s vision of his own legacy, which he penned in 2017:

“I want to be remembered as a leader that made those around him better. Hopefully, I made them better by always being there for them, supporting them with what they needed to be successful, and creating an environment where educators and students could thrive. A leader that removed obstacles, connected, and brought people together for the common purpose of student learning. I want to be remembered as a leader who made those around him better and never tired in my efforts to improve student learning experiences.”

Some attendees included members of the Laguna Beach police and fire departments who personally worked with Duddy. The principal’s long career of education and mentorship with Laguna Beach Schools was also known to have touched multiple generations of families.

Students from the fifth-grade class at El Morro performed “My Wish” by the Rascal Flats, which quickly became Duddy’s favorite song after he played it repeatedly on a road trip with his family.

Details of Duddy’s celebration of life will be shared as they become available, Viloria said. For now, Laguna Beach schools will continue to remember him for his warmth, smile, and knock-knock jokes, he said.

“We will never forget Chris, because he gave us so much to remember,” Viloria said.

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