Retiring El Morro principal Chris Duddy dies in sleep

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El Morro Elementary Principal Chris Duddy. Photo courtesy of Laguna Beach Unified School District.

El Morro School principal Chris Duddy died in his sleep Tuesday, school district officials said in a press release. He was 57.

Duddy was slated to retire on June 30. He had served the Laguna Beach schools community for 24 years.

“We are deeply saddened to inform you that our beloved Principal, Mr. Chris Duddy, passed away last night in his sleep. Mr. Duddy has been an incredible partner and leader in our El Morro family and Laguna Beach Unified School District,” Laguna Beach Unified Supt. Jason Viloria said in a statement Wednesday.

The school district had grief counselors available to staff, students, and parents at El Morro on Wednesday morning. The Orange County Dept. of Education is also providing support to the district.

“We’re just in crisis support mode right now,” district spokesperson Shelley Spessard said Wednesday.

District officials canceled an open house at El Morro that was set for Wednesday night. A Board of Education meeting scheduled for Thursday night has been postponed to next week.

Staff members and parents exchanged hugs near the school’s traffic circle after the end of a scheduled minimum school day on Wednesday morning.

El Morro Elementary School curriculum coach Kimberly Mattson accepts flowers from a community member Wednesday following the death of the school’s principal. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

A vigil for Duddy was scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Guyer Field, school board president Carol Normandin said. District officials said open-flame candles aren’t permitted due to the City’s high fire hazard. Battery-operated candles are welcome. Attendees were asked to walk, bike, or take public transit.

“This is incredibly shocking news to share and we are all working diligently to support our El Morro teachers, staff, and students. We also share our deepest sorrows and sympathy with Mr. Duddy’s wife, children, and family,” Viloria said.

El Morro Elementary staff members look on as students leave campus on Wednesday. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Duddy was first hired by the district as a Thurston Middle School assistant principal in 1998. He was promoted to principal of the school site in 2001 and worked there until taking his current role at El Morro for the 2004-05 school year.

Jill Foubister, the mother of an El Morro kindergartner, was shocked to learn of Duddy’s death while picking up her son from school on Wednesday. Foubister was a student at Thurston Middle School while Duddy was an assistant principal at the campus.

“I’m really sad to hear that news. He was an incredible assistant principal when I was a student at Thurston. Holy Moley, how much can you take?” Foubisiter said, adding that she remembers Duddy’s personally checking in with his middle school students.

Celine Macmillan, a former president of both the El Morro Elementary and Thurston Middle School parent-teacher associations, said her family was devastated Wednesday.

One of her favorite memories was from her son Liam’s fourth-grade year. He received a note that he was to go to the principal’s office immediately. His classmates were whispering to him in class “What did you do?”

“When he finally arrived to the office, Mr. Duddy greeted him with a big smile. ‘Hey Liam, come on in. I want to show you this awesome surfing video!’ All the dread and stress immediately left Liam,” Macmillan said.

They watched the short video together, gave each other high fives and Liam walked back to his class stoked. Liam regularly looked forward to going surfing with his dad, Bruce Macmillan,  and Duddy at San Onofre.

Laguna Beach parents share a quiet moment Wednesday while waiting for their students to leave campus after the announcement of Principal Chris Duddy’s death. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

School board member James Kelly said Duddy cared for El Morro students as if they were his own children.

“I think it’s a tragic loss for all of us. He was such a great educator, a wonderful friend, and he had earned the right to a retirement,” Kelly said. “I will always remember his sense of humor and his steady management of his school and making sure it was properly staffed.”

Duddy was in the parking lot every morning getting students off the bus and settled for the school day. Every afternoon, he was there to see them home safely to their parents, Kelly said.

Third-grader teacher Tamara Wong was among the staff who gathered in front of the school during student pick-up on Wednesday. Wong is El Morro’s second most senior teacher and is also set to retire this year.

Wong was in tears as she recalled telling her students that something terrible happened to their beloved principal.

“If anyone needs to cry, talk, or grieve we are here for each other,” she told to her third graders. A couple of Wong’s students made drawings to share how they were feeling.

Before leaving early Tuesday for a colleague’s retirement party in a neighboring school district, Wong ran into Duddy and the two struck up a brief conversation about their imminent retirement.

“He goes ‘we’re going out into the sunset together, right?” Duddy asked her.

“That’s right,” Wong replied.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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  1. This is a true loss of a great and influential member of our community. Words can not express the loss we feel and the shocking departure of our dear friend. Miss him already.

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