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FAIRFIELD — Heartbroken to learn Fairfield High School Spanish language teacher Nohema Graber had been murdered, friends Friday recalled how she influenced their lives — sending notes of encouragement, helping a newcomer in need, offering prayers.
“I feel so blessed to have known this saintly woman,” said Karen Crossland, who knew her from St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Fairfield. “This is when we rely on our faith to see us through. Knowing that she is in paradise with our heavenly Father and Our Lady of Guadalupe gives me great peace. I will miss her deeply, and can’t imagine the heartbreak her family is experiencing.”
On Thursday, authorities said that two boys at her school — Willard Noble Chaiden Miller and Jeremy Everett Goodale, both 16 — plotted over social media exchanges to kill her, then did so in Chautauqua City Park, where the teacher liked to walk just blocks east of the school.
In criminal complaints, police said the teens outlined their motive for killing her in their social media exchanges. But police did not disclose details of what they discussed. Each faces charges of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit a forcible felony. Both boys will be tried as adults.
Graber, 66, leaves behind three children, Christian, Nohema Marie and Jared, and a former husband, Paul.
A GoFundMe page saying it intended to support Graber’s family had by Friday afternoon surpassed its initial $10,000 goal, having raised $20,865 from 353 donors in less than 24 hours
Graber had been a Spanish teacher at Fairfield High since 2012. A vigil to honor her memory was held there Friday evening.
The Fairfield Public Library also announced on Facebook it is mourning the loss, and invited the public to bring decorations and photos of Graber to add to a Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) altar. Graber grew up in Mexico, and on Monday as she attended the Fairfield library’s event marking the day, she had told The Southeast Iowa Union about her family’s Day of the Dead traditions.
Just two days later, Fairfield police issued a missing person alert for her and announced the following day her body had been found.
Gerry Garles, a friend of Graber’s who knew her through St. Mary’s church, said Graber brought her many laughs and joyful memories.
“Her playful smile always revealed her tender heart,” Garles said. “She quietly went about the business of loving.”
Sister Meg Earsley helped lead the St. Mary Catholic Church’s choir, which Graber was a member of.
“She was a dedicated member of the choir, and I really enjoyed her presence,” Earsley said. “She sang soprano, and had a beautiful voice. She was very kind, and taught us how to sing ‘Silent Night’ in Spanish.”
Earsley moved away from Fairfield about four years ago, but she and Graber stayed in touch.
“She sent me notes here and there to remind me that she’s praying for me,” Earsley said. “Just last week when I was on my way to go to Costa Rica with some family, she reminded me to practice my Spanish, because she knows I’m going to spend time in Bolivia next year.”
Taniya Hallman, a friend of Graber’s who sang with her in St. Mary’s choir and who carpooled to work with her, said she will cherish her memories of Graber.
“She reached out to help, driving me to Ottumwa every day for three months while I student taught there, because I didn’t have a license or a car,” Hallman said. “I was new to the country, and she made me feel welcome. We developed a strong personal bond through long chats in the car. She always asked about my family back home and how they were doing. She genuinely cared about everyone in her life.”
Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a statement Friday saying her heart goes out to the family, friends, colleagues and students who are dealing with Graber’s loss.
“Ms. Graber touched countless children’s lives through her work as an educator across our state by sharing her passion of foreign language,” Reynolds said. “I am confident through the work of our dedicated law enforcement that justice will prevail.”
Christian Graber, her son, posted a Facebook message Thursday saying he forgives the people who killed his mother and that there is no point in being angry, the Associated Press reported.
"My mother was an angel of a woman and was one of the kindest souls," he wrote, ending with, "Te amo madre (I love you mom.)"
Her daughter, Nohema Marie Graber, echoed her brother's message, the AP reported.
"We had the wonderful fortune of growing up in a home filled with such an abundance of warmth and love," she said.