Crime & Justice

Outside the classroom, San Bernardino teacher remembered for her voice

A sidewalk memorial dedicated to the teacher and student who were shot to death Monday at North Park Elementary School in San Bernardino, Calif., is displayed Tuesday, April 11, 2017. Jonathan Martinez, a special needs student of teacher Karen Smith, died when Smith's estranged husband shot both in her classroom. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
A sidewalk memorial dedicated to the teacher and student who were shot to death Monday at North Park Elementary School in San Bernardino, Calif., is displayed Tuesday, April 11, 2017. Jonathan Martinez, a special needs student of teacher Karen Smith, died when Smith's estranged husband shot both in her classroom. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Reed Saxon/AP

Listen to story

04:34
Download this story 2.0MB

Thomas Alexander, Jr.'s earliest memory of his cousin Karen Smith is of a precocious 7-year-old in front of the congregation at her grandfather's church, belting out a solo, backed by the adult choir.

"Karen was a singer," Alexander said. "Karen came from a family of singers."

It's also a family of believers. Alexander's grandparents had 16 children, a half-dozen of whom — including Smith's mother — became pastors themselves. Alexander said the sprawling family tree's deep roots in the Christian faith are anchoring his relatives after Smith was killed Monday in her San Bernardino classroom.

Smith's estranged husband, Cedric Anderson, entered North Park Elementary School and fatally shot both the 53-year-old special education teacher and 8-year-old Jonathan Martinez before killing himself. A 9-year-old student, Nolan Brandy, was also wounded, but is recovering.

Police and school officials say nobody at school knew Smith and her husband had separated in March. Police also said Anderson had sent threatening messages to Smith, though officials said she'd told those close to her she interpreted those threats as attention-seeking rather than serious.

But in an hour-long interview, Alexander said he didn't want to discuss Anderson. Neither did his wife, Jessica Alexander, senior pastor of Grace Chapel of San Bernardino, where Smith attended services several years ago.

Instead, the Alexanders take comfort in the words Tom and Karen sang together growing up, both while attending church services and playing in Christian bands.

“She sang about hope in God that endured even beyond this natural life," Tom Alexander said. "I do think it’s a very important part of her faith that carried through her life and gave her peace."

Smith and Alexander were just two years apart in age, and grew up fifteen minutes apart in Harbor City and Carson. They both attended some of the same private, religious schools and the church in Carson where Alexander's father was pastor, he said.

In their teenage years, Smith, Alexander and several friends decided to form a band. They called their group "Joyful Noise," and mostly covered Christian songs. Smith was the female vocalist.

"She had the talent — the God-given talent," Alexander remembered.

As they entered their 20s, members of the group gradually performed together less and less, Alexander said. But after performing at a 2009 birthday party, Smith, Alexander and some of the old group reunited in 2010 to record some original songs.

Roughly two years later, Grace Chapel in San Bernardino was in need of a worship director — a layperson who could lead the congregation in both prayer and song. Tom Alexander suggested Jessica ought to reach out to Karen.

"I remember her initially saying, 'I’m so busy, but I think I can come at least twice a month and help you get started,'" remembered Jessica, who became Grace Chapel's senior pastor in 2011.

"And then something happened when [Karen] started coming," Jessica said, "and meeting the people and they started connecting with her — as often happens in churches. And she said, 'You know, I want to make the commitment.'"

For more than a year-and-a-half, in 2012 and 2013, Smith served as Grace Chapel's worship director, writing skits, staging musical numbers and serving as a youth leader.

“Even though she was a very quiet, mild-mannered — some might even use the word 'shy' — person, the truth is she didn’t appear that way when she was around children,” Jessica said.

Alexander remembers one Bible camp Smith organized, with over-the-top decorations and costumes — evidence of the passion that made her a beloved special education teacher in the San Bernardino Unified School District for 10 years.

“It was just amazing how she made those lessons come to life. You weren’t going to give her a book and talk from the book. She was going to make the pages of the story come alive for the children. That’s the kind of teacher she was.”

Karen Smith left Grace Chapel in 2013. She lived in Riverside and the church was a little too far from her home. The Alexanders say they kept in touch and saw Smith maybe twice a year.

They also say they attended Smith’s wedding in January to Cedric Anderson.

Police and school officials say nobody at school knew Smith and her husband had separated in March. Police also said Anderson had sent threatening messages to Smith, though officials said she'd told those close to her she interpreted those threats as attention-seeking rather than serious.

During a brief phone conversation, Smith's mother declined to be interviewed about her daughter's death but said Karen was a woman of steadfast faith, and that she was in heaven.

Jessica Alexander hoped those hearing Smith's story would focus on how much she accomplished in life.

“It’s so important to us that people don’t remember Karen as this victim," Alexander said. "She had so many victories throughout her life — the beautiful children that she raised, the children that she taught. That is how she would want to be remembered.”