NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The head of the Christian elementary school in Nashville who was killed in a shooting there on Monday was described by friends as smart, loving and a rare female leader within a male-led religious culture.
“If there was any trouble in that school, she would run to it, not from it,” Jackie Bailey said of her friend Katherine Koonce, head of The Covenant School. “She was trying to protect those kids … That’s just what I believe.”
Koonce was one of six people killed in the shooting in Tennessee, including three 9-year-old children identified by police as Hallie Scruggs, Evelyn Dieckhaus and William Kinney. Also killed were Cynthia Peak, 61, a substitute teacher, and Mike Hill, 61, a custodian.
In a video statement released Tuesday evening, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Peak was supposed to have dinner with his wife, Maria, after filling in as a substitute teacher at Covenant.
“Maria woke up this morning without one of her best friends,” Lee said, adding that Peak, Koonce and his wife had once taught together and “have been family friends for decades.”
A friend of Hill’s posted on Facebook that he also believed Hill would have died protecting the children.
Pastor Tim Dunavant, of the Hartsville First United Methodist Church, said that he hired Hill to work at Covenant more than a decade ago.
“I don’t know the details yet. But I have a feeling, when it all comes out, Mike’s sacrifice saved lives,” Dunavant wrote. “I have nothing factual to base that upon. I just know what kind of guy he was. And I know he’s the kind of guy that would do that.”
Hill’s family issued a statement saying, “We pray for the Covenant School and are so grateful that Michael was beloved by the faculty and students who filled him with joy for 14 years. He was a father of seven children … and 14 grandchildren. He liked to cook and spend time with family.”
Another pastor, Jim Bachmann, said Hill was “one of those people you cannot not like” and that he made a point of learning the names of all the students and talking to them.
Bachmann was the founding pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church, which runs the school, and is the current pastor of Stephens Valley Church, where Hill was a member and sometimes served as a greeter. On those occasions, Hill would “dress up like he was going to meet the president of the United States,” Bachmann said. He added, “Everybody loved Mike, and he loved them back.”
Friends also described Peak as a loving friend and natural teacher.
She was “a sweet person from a sweet family,” said Chuck Owen, who told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that they grew up together in Leesville, Louisiana, and that Peak was a lifelong friend.
When he heard that Peak was killed in the shooting, “It took my breath away,” Owen said. “You don’t expect something like this. It just took the wind out of me.”
Peak was also a devout Christian.
“She told me that she got saved in college and that God’s love changed her life,” Owen said, adding it was appropriate that she was teaching at a Christian school.
Nashville songwriter Natalie Hemby posted on Instagram that Peak “taught me how to swim. Keep my head above water… which is what we’re all trying to do right now. …And next time you jump in a pool on a beautiful summer day, and find yourself floating and looking at the sky, please think of my friend, Cindy Peak.”
Her family issued a statement saying their “hearts are broken,” and called Peak “a pillar of the community, and a teacher beloved by all her students.”
“She never wavered in her faith and we know she is wrapped in the arms of Jesus,” the statement said.
In Dallas, the Park Cities Presbyterian Church held a service to mourn the passing of Hallie Scruggs, daughter of Covenant Presbyterian Church lead pastor Chad Scruggs. He had previously worked as an associate pastor at Park Cities, which issued a statement about the shooting.
“We love the Scruggs family and mourn with them over their precious daughter Hallie,” Park Cities Senior Pastor Mark Davis said in the statement. “Together, we trust in the power of Christ to draw near and give us the comfort and hope we desperately need.”
The church held a noon service on Tuesday to pray for the victims as well as for the shooter.
“I spoke with Chad yesterday afternoon,” Davis said. “He was very conversant, admitting he’s in shock, that this is surreal. But also admitting … that the Lord is in control.”
The Covenant School in Nashville has about 200 students from preschool through sixth grade, as well as roughly 50 staff members, according to its website.
Before Koonce took the top role with Covenant, Anna Caudill, a former art teacher, worked with her for almost a decade at Christ Presbyterian Academy, another Christian school in the area connected to a Presbyterian Church in America congregation.
“She was an absolute dynamo and one of the smartest women I’ll ever know,” said Caudill, recalling how Koonce excelled at her day job while parenting her children, pursuing her masters and then her PhD, and writing a book.
For Caudill, who grew up in several male-led Christian denominations, Koonce had remarkable leadership skills and was the first woman in such a setting to encourage her to keep learning and pursuing her life goals. When Caudill launched her nonprofit advocating for special education resources and other support, she said Koonce was one of the first to donate financially to it.
She said Koonce loved her job at Covenant and she was loved by students and their families.
“She wasn’t Wonder Woman, but I never saw the two in the same place,” she said.
Adrian Sainz contributed from Memphis, Tenn. Finley reported from Norfolk, Va.