PEABODY — The city has been stunned by the loss of "a great leader" with the death of the schools' beloved and devoted superintendent, Cara Murtagh.
Mayor Ted Bettencourt confirmed that Murtagh, 44, died Friday morning. The circumstances were not known.
The School Committee chairman, Bettencourt worked closely with Murtagh in guiding the city's schools. She had attended a School Committee meeting on Tuesday night.
"We are shocked and saddened by the sudden death of our beloved friend and colleague Cara Murtagh," said Bettencourt, in a statement. "Superintendent Murtagh's talent, energy and can-do spirit inspired all those whose lives she touched. Her selfless devotion to our students, faculty and staff lifted the Peabody School Department. I was honored to work with Cara every day and proud to call her my friend. On behalf of our entire community, I extend our heartfelt sympathy and loving support to Cara's family."
Murtagh was nearly midway through her second year as superintendent. Those who knew her say the Peabody native and resident lived the school's motto: "Every student, every day," and seemingly knew every student by name.
Peabody Public Schools comprises 6,000 students and 450 teachers in 10 schools.
Her death coincides with a sorrowful time for the schools. On Nov. 19, Jackson Frechette, a 13-year-old Higgins Middle School student, was struck and killed crossing Route 114 on a bicycle.
Those who knew Murtagh described her as a hard worker. Officials say they could see her car parked at the school department on Lowell Street as late as 10 p.m. on most nights.
She also made it a point to regularly visit all 10 of the city's schools, an effort she called "Walk through Wednesdays." And she often deflected her accomplishments on to her leadership team.
"A great leader has to be visible, and a great leader has to be accessible, and you are both," said School Committee member Joseph Amico in August, during a committee discussion on Murtagh's job performance. "You are probably the hardest working employee in the city, and a lot of that goes to your reaching out to families and the students all year long, so I just want to thank you for that."
"I think you have done a terrific job this year, your first year," Bettencourt said at the time of the evaluation. "You were hit with a wide variety of very challenging budget items, situations, challenges and you rose to the occasion and I think even better years are ahead for you."
At the time, Murtagh thanked other district officials, along with the schools' secretaries, teachers and families, for their work.
"I could not possibly do my job without the collaboration and support of the mayor, School Committee, my incredible leadership team," she said.
Among her many initiatives this year included selecting Chris Lord to serve as principal at Peabody High, after former principal Eric Buckley resigned unexpectedly for personal reasons after the end of the last school year. Lord is also the district's assistant superintendent.
She helped set up a summer parent/student information center at the Higgins Middle School, which provided a one-stop location for parents seeking to check out Chromebooks, register a new student or submit immunization forms. She recently helped to judge drawings for a kindergarten fire prevention program, in which one student from each school won a ride to school on a fire truck.
In the spring, after a difficult budget year, she successfully advocated before the City Council for a midyear $1.16 million supplemental budget driven by increased costs for out-of-district tuition and homeless transportation. She oversaw the beginning stages of a project to replace windows and the heating system at the Welch School on Swampscott Avenue, as well as the first steps of working with the state to either renovate or replace Peabody Veterans Memorial High School.
Mark Whiting, manager of the Northshore Mall, served with Murtagh for several years on the Peabody Education Foundation board. The mall also hosts the Simon Youth Peabody Learning Academy, an alternative high school that serves roughly 30 students.
"As part of the community, we are devastated by today's news," Whiting said.
Murtagh has worked for the schools in her hometown of Peabody for more than 20 years, and she took charge of the district in 2018. Before that, she spent six years as assistant superintendent.
She began studying nursing at Emmanuel College in Boston but graduated with a bachelor's degree in education studies with a concentration in history. She later earned her master's in teaching from the same college.
In 1997, she started as a teacher at St. John the Baptist School in Peabody, then moved to the Carroll School, where she was a teacher, assistant principal and principal. She was also principal for a year at the Center School.
Murtagh comes from a family dedicated to education. Her father, Jack Murtagh, was the principal of the former Kiley Brothers Memorial School for 37 years. He died in 2014 from lung cancer. Her uncle John Murtagh was the principal of the Burke Elementary and Higgins Middle schools.
She does not have children of her own. In an interview last year, she said, "I have 6,000 I have to take care of every single day ... I treat the children in this district like my own. I have to. I worry about them just like I would if they were my own."
This story will be updated as information becomes available.
Staff writer Taylor Bradford contributed to this report.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.