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Draper Journal

Celebrating the life of a beloved Alta teacher: A legacy remembering students and bettering the community

Jun 03, 2024 03:19PM ● By Julie Slama

Alta High AP history teacher Rob Murphy joins former teachers Rique Ochoa and Don Ward in a photo; Ward recently died. (Photo courtesy of Rique Ochoa)

On an April Saturday morning, American flags waved outside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Crescent View Stake Center in Sandy, while inside, several former Alta High students and faculty, friends and family shared hugs and swapped stories of days gone by. 

They were paying tribute to former high school U.S. history teacher, Don Ward, who had died a few weeks earlier. He first taught students at Jordan High before moving to Alta High; he also was a student body officer adviser at both schools.

Former Alta world history teacher Karl Packer was a SBO adviser with Ward.

“We worked together for quite a few years, eight or nine, until he got sick with cancer, and I took over,” Packer said. “I remember when we went to Dixie (College) in the middle of July for a youth leadership camp for our student officers. We were on our way back, when the charter bus broke down. It was 114 degrees and we had 40 kids on the side of the freeway, waiting for a bus to come from Salt Lake to pick us up.”

Ward, Packer and Rique Ochoa, who team taught Advanced Placement U.S. history with Ward, were called the “three amigos.”

“We were the only three teachers in a little alcove and the three of us were good friends,” said Packer, who taught 33 years at Alta before retiring last year and recalled several trips they went on together to study history.

Ward supported the students from dressing up for Halloween to attending weddings years later.

“One year, Don had balloons all over a clear trash bag; he was dressed as a bag of jellybeans; he always had fun,” Packer said. “What I learned most from him was how to appreciate the kids and to love them for who they are. He was always kind and understanding—and had the most incredible memory. He could tell you all about the students he taught. He’d know these kids at 16, 17, 18 and now, they’re 30, 40 and 50 and he’d call them by name and remember details about their lives. It was amazing.”

Alta graduate Tyler Perry, who sang, “God Bless America” at Ward’s service, remembers his former teacher’s memory.

“If you were a student of Don’s, he remembered you and he made you feel like a million bucks,” Perry said. “We had some real goofballs in the student body officer class—and Don was patient and accepting of everyone. And everyone wanted to take Don’s AP history class. He wasn’t an easy teacher, but he was a great teacher. He understood things well and made sure we learned them.”

Ochoa, who retired last year after teaching 45 years at Alta, recalled at one time, teaching more than 300 students with Ward.

“Don knew everything about these kids not only because he was their teacher, but he was also the announcer at the football games, he was there at all the sporting events, all the plays, the concerts, and everything to build those relationships with the kids,” he said. “He was a true asset to the students and to the school.”

It was because of those relationships, students knew they could count on Ward.

“If you ever needed anything, Don was the one who helped,” Perry said. “When Don saw a need, he volunteered.”

When Ward retired after teaching 35 years, he began as a substitute teacher for Granite School District, where “he saw a huge refugee population that was underserved,” Ochoa said. “He began doing clothing and food drives for the refugee families. Now it’s the Ward Foundation, which provides Christmas for 2,000 families.”

Ward’s former students helped him with his mission.

“Don called upon his former students,” Ochoa said. “One former student who runs a group of storage units provided Don storage units to store the collection of resources he received and prep them for delivery. Students who had access to transportation helped deliver the donations. He did all this without bringing attention to himself. He did it because he saw a need—and that was exemplified in his teaching and in his career working with the refugees.” λ