Milton-Union teacher remembered as inspiration; died at 50 after COVID fight

Kellie Mahaney, a choir and drama teacher at Milton-Union schools for the past 26 years, died Feb. 2, 2021, at age 50.
Kellie Mahaney, a choir and drama teacher at Milton-Union schools for the past 26 years, died Feb. 2, 2021, at age 50.

Credit: Contributed Photo

Credit: Contributed Photo

Kellie Mahaney’s school colleagues called her a powerful personality who wouldn’t take no for an answer and inspired students year after year to accomplish more than they though possible.

Mahaney, a choir and drama teacher at Milton-Union schools for the past 26 years, died Feb. 2, at age 50. A GoFundMe account set up to help her family says she died “after a long nine-week battle with COVID.”

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Superintendent Brad Ritchey said Mahaney taught music courses and an eighth-grade drama class, directed the district’s middle school choirs, led the district’s high school show choir and produced school musicals.

“It’s a terrible situation,” Ritchey said of her death. “We are just so heartbroken about it.”

Ritchey said Mahaney taught until the end of November, but he declined to discuss any details of her illness.

Seth Helton has assisted Mahaney on show choir choreography for several years. But he said his favorite memory of her comes from almost 20 years ago in his first day as a sixth-grader in Mahaney’s choir class.

“She realized that there were only two boys in the class and she was not happy about that so she had all of us get up and follow her to the (study hall) classroom next door,” Helton said. “Kellie pointed to every single boy in the class and told them to stand up and follow her and that they were in choir now. … She would decide that something needed to be done and do whatever she had to to make it happen.”

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Helton said Mahaney took Milton-Union’s show choir from from “a rag-tag group of kids” finishing in last place to a group of well-rounded, confident ones who now win grand champion awards at competitions.

Ritchey said Mahaney and her colleagues did everything they could to make sure students would still have musical opportunities during this COVID-affected year. They tracked medical studies on best practices, installed plexiglas, enforced masking and distancing and had students sing outside when possible.

A school district statement that Ritchey posted publicly said for many students, Mahaney was their source of courage and confidence — that one caring adult who would not give up on them “on their way to becoming the best version of themselves.”

Katie and Brett Barnes said all four of their children took classes from Mahaney or performed on stage in events she directed over nearly 15 years.

Brett Barnes said Mahaney pursued passion and excellence in everything she did, to the point that the phrase, “That was definitely a Kellie Mahaney production,” became common around the school.

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It was said that once kids were in Mahaney’s classes, they were “her kids” forever. Katie Barnes said Mahaney came her son Trey’s wedding two years ago, and Trey was nervous about a joke he had written into his vows. But when the joke quickly triggered Mahaney’s distinctive laugh in the audience, it put him at ease.

“She would give them confidence that carried over into life,” Katie Barnes said. “She would push them, and give them experiences that showed them who they could be. She believed in all of her students.”

The Ohio Education Association said last week that it does not have any data on how many teachers or other school employees have died from COVID-19 or complications tied to the disease.

Katie Barnes said Mahaney cared for everyone, once taking a student who had described himself as “tone-deaf” and developing him to the point that he had a solo in a performance his senior year.

“She made an impact on every life that she came in contact with,” she said. “I am reminded of a song — ‘Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.’ "

Mahaney is survived by her husband and two children. Memorial contributions may be made to Milton-Union Choir, in care of Milton-Union High School.

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