PEABODY — Thousands came to City Hall to brave the bitter cold Thursday afternoon and evening to pay their respects to late Superintendent Cara Murtagh.
Those waiting in line said she seemed to know every student, teacher and staff member by name. They described a woman with a big smile, a good sense of humor, a positive outlook no matter the circumstances, and as someone with a good fashion sense.
"Everybody loved her," said Mary Bellavance, who recently retired from a 35-year career in the mayor's office in City Hall. "Everybody, from teachers to students to the people she worked with, I mean, everybody loved her."
Murtagh died a week ago, the day after Thanksgiving, at age 44, at Salem Hospital. Those waiting to pay their respects said Murtagh was just starting out on what promised to be a long career as the Peabody superintendent. She was someone who died way too young.
Murtagh, whose body lay in repose in the Frank L. Wiggin Auditorium on the second floor of City Hall, spent the last 23 years working in Peabody's schools, including the past two as superintendent.
The line of mourners who arrived for visiting hours snaked up the front steps of City Hall, and traveled around the building on Chestnut Street. The line turned around the back of the building, and at one point, reached St. John the Baptist Church's parking lot. There was a half day of school Thursday so people could pay their respects. Peabody's schools have been called off on Friday for her funeral at 10 a.m. in the Wiggin Auditorium.
Police Capt. Scott Richards said the line started to build around 1:30 p.m. People waiting patiently in the cold, some for three hours, as the line slowly made its way into City Hall.
The line included kids, students, young people, teachers, staff, friends, those close to the family, City Hall staff and city department heads, city councilors, and School Committee members. The lawn of City Hall had its tree decorated and lit for Christmas, and a glowing green "Seasons Greetings" sign decoration the front lawn.
A thin black ribbon had been hung on the sign of the Peabody Public Schools offices across the street from City Hall, where Murtagh's office was located.
While those who came were shocked by Murtagh's death, they were not shocked by huge outpouring.
"Very energetic, very well-liked," said Bob Wight of Danvers, who knew Murtagh through work and through her mother, Carol Murtagh of Peabody. "Just tragic what's happened." Wight said he's a member at Salem Country Club, and he was planning on talking with the superintendent before the end of the year as the club funds scholarships for Peabody.
"I knew it was going to be this way," Wight said of the long line. "I have a friend that was here at 1:30 and they were still out here."
Mary Bellavance told a story about Murtagh's playful nature. Bellavance said she would go to lunch at Brothers Restaurant and Deli a couple of blocks away from City Hall on Main Street.
"And, I'd come back and I would be sitting at my desk and she would call me and say: 'Hey, how's your lunch?' And I'm like, 'How did you know I went to lunch?' She goes, 'I saw you coming down the street, and by the way, I like your shoes!'" laughed Bellavance. "That's so her."
Murtagh's career spanned more than two decades in Peabody schools, and she touched thousands of lives that way. She started her career at the nearby St. John the Baptist School where she taught first grade. She then taught at the Carroll School and became that school's assistant principal.
She later became principal of the Center School for a year, then came back to the Carroll School as principal. She later became assistant superintendent then superintendent last year.
Burke Elementary School reading specialist Melinda Parker and Burke School first-grade teacher Suzy Miller said Murtagh's death was a shock.
"It's been especially hard because she just loved kids so much and you could feel her energy when she came in the building," Parker said.
"She never forgot a name," Miller said. "I remember I was hired, and the second time I saw her after I was hired she addressed me by my first name. And, as someone who had worked for six superintendents in my career, not in Peabody but in other districts, I was thoroughly impressed with that. She always had an upbeat, positive attitude and smile on her face."
Parker recalled an evacuation of the Burke School last year, during which students were put in mini buses in back of the school during the incident.
"And she came in her classic high heels in the snow on each and every bus and cheered all the kids up and she was just amazing," Parker said.
"'Thumbs up, great job, kids,' Miller recalled Murtagh saying. "'We'll be out of here soon.' ... She could bring a calm to a situation like no other. It was really impressive."
"It's a loss for the city," said Ward 2 City Councilor Peter McGinn, who was among several councilors who lined up to pay their respects.
"She was a wonderful lady and I knew her and my mother and her mother were good friends," said Pam Paine, who described Murtagh as "sweet and knowledgeable and smart."
Former Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins knew Murtagh through her sister, Kim Murtagh of Peabody, who worked for him for 21 years. He also met Murtagh's father, John “Jack” Murtagh and knew Murtagh's mother well.
"She was just a nice person," said Cousins, someone who was committed to the city. "And she loved her job...She loved the kids and she was committed to being here, to lead the schools, and that's a great thing."
"Cara was a phenomenal human being, somebody that really made a difference in so many people's lives, and her death was so sudden and so shocking," said Matt Mogavero of Peabody, who graduated Peabody High in 2014.
He said Murtagh was engaging, often out and about in the community, someone who volunteered on the weekends and was involved in so many different causes and organizations. She "was committed to being a superintendent 24/7," he said.
"She had a fantastic sense of style and I loved to laugh with Cara," Mogavero said.
Murtagh's funeral will be held on Friday, Dec. 6, in the Wiggin Auditorium, followed by burial in Cedar Grove Cemetery in Peabody. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in her name to the Peabody Education Foundation, www.peabodyedfoundation.org.