By JUDY SHERIDAN
Aledo ISD teacher Traci Cottrell, who has helped Aledo ISD students sidelined by injuries or illnesses keep up with their schoolwork for more than a decade, was used to collecting assignments, heading to students’ homes and pulling up a chair at the kitchen table.
Spending time, one-on-one, she really got to know her pupils, but she never imagined that one of them would become her hero.
“Seeing people get better has been one of my job’s greatest gifts,” Cottrell said. “This was ... different, but an incredible joy.”
Cottrell — now both sad and relieved, heartbroken but comforted — is the teacher who instructed 18-year-old Eric Willoughby, an Aledo ISD student who died Jan. 13 after a three-year struggle with bone cancer.
She spent countless hours with him, as a teacher and as a friend, and was there with his family — parents, Kelly and Tara, sister Kristen and brother Phillip — when school officials brought his Aledo High School diploma to his bedside, six hours before he died.
Nicknamed “Superman,” Eric was an amazing person, Cottrell said — lovable and smart, laid-back and funny, sarcastic and unfailingly polite — and he had attracted a close-knit band of friends.
They called themselves “The Dubs”: Tyler Lewis, Tyler Byrd, Blake Cretsinger, Chandon Nichols, Brayden Hays, Cole Turner, Phillip Willoughby, Brad Norman and Matt Kszyminski.
“They would have done anything for him,” Cottrell said. “They were there from beginning to end, even though it was hard.
“They shaved their heads when his hair fell out. They used his initials as tattoos.
“And they were there in the room when he passed.”
Cottrell met Eric, who would have graduated in 2013 had it not been for his illness, when he was diagnosed in February of 2011.
At the time she was also tutoring Leah Vann, recently diagnosed with leukemia.
Leah and Eric’s diseases both went into remission, Cottrell said, but while Leah recovered and graduated last spring — remembering Eric to her classmates as she did so — Eric’s cancer returned with a vengeance, making him too ill to attend.
“His mom was so great about keeping me in the loop,” Cottrell reflected, saying she has become very close to Eric’s family. “When he got better we cried and celebrated. And she called when it came back.”
Eric never complained about his diagnosis, treatment and struggles, Cottrell said.
“He just pressed on,” she said, “making the most of life.”
Cottrell said Eric’s family is grateful for all those who stood by Eric through the years, including Preston Tyson, Maddison Roberts, Kendall Birchmier, Ethan Nichols, Matt Tedder, Shawn Albright, Noah Wilson and others.
Eric told her he loved her before he died, Cottrell said.
“I’ve had my closure,” she said, “but I miss his voice, his smile and our conversations about life. I miss bringing him treats from Sonic and hearing him sing as he did his work.”