Thurston Morton recalls the talk he gave to his class on the fundamentals of public speaking at Normandale Community College nearly two years ago. His subject was Laurie Schmidt, a special education teacher in Jordan, Minn., whom he called a "modern-day female Mr. Rogers."
Morton, who has autism, described the powerful impact Schmidt had on his life when he was a student at Jordan Middle School — including encouragement from her to help younger autistic students with their school assignments.
"She was there for me whenever I needed her," said Morton, now 23. "She was friendly and outgoing. She always gave you a reason to smile whenever you went in her classroom. She was there to talk to when times were tough."
Schmidt, who taught reading, writing and math to 12 to 16 autistic students each year along with communication and social skills, died of breast cancer Aug. 19 at her home in Jordan. She was 57.
"She took all her students under her wing," said Lorri Komisar, a close friend.
"She wasn't a good teacher — she was exceptional," said Ben Bakeberg, the middle school principal. "She loved kids. She pushed them when they needed to be pushed, encouraged them when they needed encouragement and knew her content well. But she knew that kids were more important than any content that she taught."
Schmidt was named Minnesota Middle School Educator of the Year in 2020. Rose Johnson, a teacher of students with special needs at the school who had nominated her for the award, said Schmidt became an expert on autism by continually studying the subject. She was sought out by other autism teachers for information and advice, Johnson said.
In the summer Schmidt would take students on field trips so they could learn social norms, including visits to the Minnesota Zoo and to a program that packed food to send to children overseas, said Rose Gulbranson, another teacher at the school.
Schmidt was born in Minneapolis and raised in St. Louis Park, where she graduated from high school. She received a bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth, and a master's from St. Mary's University in Winona.
She taught elementary school in Superior, Wis., before taking a substitute teaching job at the Jordan school in 2004 and becoming a full-time teacher there the following year.
In 2013 Schmidt was diagnosed with cancer. "She was a remarkably positive patient," said Dr. Dylan Zylla, her oncologist. "She wanted to work even when she was sick. She wanted to be there for the kids. She would always ask about side effects [of her treatments] and how it would impact her work."
Schmidt had an adventurous spirit. "She wanted to go to all the county fairs in Minnesota, and I bet she went to half of them," said her father, Larry Schmidt of St. Louis Park.
"She was always a history buff," said her brother David, of Jordan, who added that she liked to stop and read historical markers wherever she was driving. Her goal was to visit all 50 states; she managed to get to 49 of them, but didn't reach Hawaii because of the COVID-19 pandemic and her illness. So colleagues held a Hawaiian luau for her on June 30.
Even as she grew more ill, she talked about making plans to return to school in September or help with the transition for her replacement, said her half sister Emily, of Los Angeles: "She was so very selfless."
Schmidt is also survived by her mother, Irene Sari of Minnetonka; half sister Annie of Robbinsdale; and half brother Aaron Sari of Minnetonka. Services were Monday.
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224 Twitter: @randyfurst