RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Longtime Rio Rancho educator Pat Di Vasto had no trouble remembering when she met Lynda Kitts.
Lincoln Middle School Principal Richard Von Ancken and Di Vasto, then an assistant principal, were in desperate need of a math teacher back in 2000.
Di Vasto’s daughter, Nikki, told her there was a great substitute math teacher at Eagle Ridge Middle School.
Kitts visited the LMS administrators, passed the audition — and had a new job.
Kitts, 56, passed away the evening of June 26, with RRPS reporting on its Facebook page that her death resulted from “an unexpected illness, not related to COVID-19.” Her husband, Stanlee, and her daughter, Stephanie, were by her side.
Kitts was born in the Bronx, New York City.
She became an assistant principal at LMS in 2005. In 2012, she was named principal at Rio Rancho Middle School.
“Losing Lynda is very sad,” Di Vasto said. “Not only have I lost a colleague, I have also lost a dear friend.”
After Kitts’ hiring to teach math, Di Vasto recalled, “She very quickly became an excellent teacher who gained everyone’s love and respect.”
Several RRMS teachers were in agreement:
“The past few days have just been so hard,” said RRMS teacher Antonia Bynum. “Lynda was my friend and I will miss her dearly. She loved her job; she loved our school, students and staff. She loved to cook and would often bring treats for us to eat.
Bynum recalled Kitts playing bubble soccer with students at lunch and allowing herself to be duct-taped to a wall for a fundraiser.
“Her office was always open if I had a question or concern. She had an amazing sense of humor and always shared her silly stories during staff meetings,” Bynum said. “There is just so much about her, I just can’t put it all into words.”
editor Jay Tharinger, who left the newspaper business to become a teacher and is at RRMS, said Kitts convinced him about 20 years ago that becoming a teacher would bring a wonderful change to his life.
“How right she was!” he said. “In the years that followed, Lynda had a positive influence on my life, and I’m certain she will for the years to come. She had this amazing ability to spread joy — without even trying.”
“Going back to school will never be the same, but Lynda’s laughter will echo through the halls of RRMS forever. I miss Lynda dearly, but I can’t help but smile when I think about her.
“That’s how she’d want it,” he said.
RRMS dance teacher Christina Daly started work at the school at the same time Kitts became the principal.
“Perhaps that is why she always showed me unending grace and patience — we were in it together — although showing grace and patience was certainly her modus operandi,” Daly recalled.
“Watching her lead RRMS employees and the students with grit, compassion and humor has taught me to do the same in my own classroom and business. The working relationship was built on honesty, transparency and again humor. She was the first supervisor I ever had who applauded me for my honesty. … Lynda has been, and will always be, one of the most influential women in my life.”
English teacher Jana Siverts said Kitts created a culture that allowed staff to thrive as professionals.
“She trusted us, she trusted our judgment, and that is one of the reasons she made such a great principal,” Siverts said. “She would challenge us with musical trivia questions to earn bonus points (to be applied to what? It didn’t matter.) She cared about each one of us and she cared for our students.
“She didn’t just ‘like’ middle school kids; she appreciated them in all of their adolescent glory.”
Among students who once called Kitts their principal was Kit Fiske, who shared memories on the RRPS Facebook page.
“When I first got her as an eighth-grader, she was a brand new principal (and) came halfway through the year; she made sure to always talk and be nice to everyone, and she especially had a soft spot for me because my nickname was Kit and her last name was Kitts — from then on, as an office aide for her, she was a great mentor and wonderful woman,” Fiske wrote.
RRPS Secondary School Improvement Officer Renee Saucedo said Rio Rancho Middle School has been consistently one of the highest-rated middle schools in the state under Kitts’ guidance.
“The many accomplishments of the school, students and staff are testament to (her) strong leadership. She was the type of person that just made you smile as soon as you saw her coming your way!” Saucedo said.
Former RRPS administrator Cathy Rork-Gaarden called Kitts a gift to the community, schools and children.
“I will never forget how excited she was the day that the RRPS security team gave her her own Sam Browne belt to carry her radio, cell phone and all the other accessories she wore to keep her students and staff safe,” Rork-Gaarden said. “Her reaction was priceless.”
A memorial visitation will be held Monday from 5-8 p.m. at Daniels Family Funeral services, 4310 Sara Road. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, a celebration of life will take place at a later date.
The principal’s position at RRMS will be advertised, as the district seeks to replace her before the start of school in early August.