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Milken Award-winning Maize teacher dies in zip-line accident

Students and teachers at Maize Central Elementary School had been looking forward to Jeanie Weve’s return to the classroom after her maternity leave.

On Monday, they mourned the sudden loss of the beloved and highly respected teacher and mom, who died Sunday in a zip-line accident in Reno County.

“It was not uncommon to walk by her classroom first thing in the morning and see Jeanie dancing and cheering with her kids,” said David Jennings, principal at Maize Central Elementary, where Weve taught fourth grade.

“She liked to ‘wake up’ their brains and their bodies before they got down to the tasks of the day. She was a one-of-a-kind teacher.”

Officials say Weve, 39, was with family members and friends riding a zip line near her home in Pretty Prairie on Sunday evening. She was on maternity leave after giving birth to her third child, daughter Macy, about five weeks ago.

Fire and emergency medical crews were called to a fall at a private home near the corner of Silver Lake and McNew, just west of Cheney Lake, at about 6 p.m. Sunday, Reno County Sheriff Randy Henderson said.

“Witnesses said that Jeanie grabbed the zip line and appeared to freeze as she jumped off, letting go of the handles and falling about 20 feet,” Henderson said.

It is unclear whether Weve was wearing a safety harness, he said. The accident is still under investigation.

Weve was taken by ambulance to Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis and later died from injuries related to the fall, Henderson said.

No one from the Sheriff’s Office was called to the scene Sunday, Henderson added. He said he learned about Weve’s death from the county coroner Monday morning.

Last fall, Weve was named a Milken National Educator during a surprise assembly at Maize Central Elementary. The award, one of the highest honors in teaching, came with a $25,000 prize.

“I feel blessed to just go to a job every day that I really feel called to do,” Weve told The Eagle after receiving the award. “Every morning I wake up and think, ‘I really have the best job in the world.’”

Karen McDermott, spokeswoman for the Maize school district, said officials notified school employees about Weve’s death Sunday night and counselors were called to the school Monday morning.

Weve, pronounced “WEE-vee,” had taught for 18 years and had been at Maize since August 2008. She was scheduled to return to the classroom after the Thanksgiving break, McDermott said.

“We definitely came together this morning with sadness in our hearts, but also joy because she’s someone who always had joy in her heart,” said Trish Shields, a first-grade teacher at Maize Central and a longtime friend of Weve’s.

“Her passion for teaching was so contagious, you could just feel it,” she said.

Shields said Weve’s love for teaching extended to her church, Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Wichita, where she helped with Christmas pageants, vacation Bible school and various youth programs.

“She’s just an amazing woman of God,” Shields said. “She lived by God’s pure example and was just an amazing person.”

Jennings, the principal, said Weve was known in school for her high-energy approach to teaching.

“What she created in her classroom can’t be taught or manufactured. It came naturally as a result of Jeanie’s personality and genuine love for each student,” he said. “She will be missed by all who knew and loved her.”

After winning the Milken Award last October, Weve – then Jeanie Padron – said she and her fiance were planning a January 2011 wedding and would spend some of her winnings on wedding expenses.

She was one of 55 educators around the country – and the only one in Kansas – to be recognized last year for innovative and exceptional teaching styles.

“We’re all just weeping. We can’t believe it,” said Barbara Bowers, spokeswoman for the California-based Milken Family Foundation.

As part of the award, Weve traveled to Los Angeles last spring to participate in a national education conference, Bowers said.

Weve said she was inspired to become a teacher by her mother, who taught kindergarten in Oklahoma for 30 years. Every day in the classroom was challenging and rewarding, she said.

“I think about my students, especially those little guys who struggle all day long, and it’s really hard for them,” she said last fall. “It’s so important to be mindful of that.”

Shields, the first-grade teacher, said she wasn’t surprised when she heard that Weve had been riding a zip line.

“She’s just full of adventure, always ready to try something new,” Shields said. “You could just see Jeanie, probably the first one in line saying, ‘Let’s go.’ She was amazing.”

Weve is survived by her husband, Mark, daughter Carlee Padron, a seventh-grader, son Alex Padron, a fourth-grader, and newborn Macy Weve. The funeral is at 10 a.m. Thursday at Central Community Church in Wichita.

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