Lorraine Poppe was never in charge of a classroom or school — but she was always in command of one, her longtime friend and former colleague Peter Lynch said. “She knew how to work the room, and made sure everyone gave their best,” Lynch, Baldwin High School’s principal from 1982 to 1988, said. “She was always very encouraging of everybody.”
Poppe also used those skills as an English teacher at BHS to make sure students were excited to come to class, Lynch said. “Very few people cut her class,” he recalled. “Students liked going to her class, and that’s very hard to do sometimes.” In 1995, when Poppe became principal of John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore, several Baldwin educators followed her there so they could continue to learn from her. “If I was a teacher just starting out at that point, I might have gone to Kennedy, too,” Lynch said. “She was that good.”
Poppe, a former Baldwinite whose kindness and gentle smile touched the lives of thousands of students in Baldwin and Bellmore throughout her 44 years as an educator, died April 16 after a long period of declining health. She was 67.
She took a leave of absence from Kennedy, where she served as principal for 23 years, in 2017, before retiring last year. “Lorraine was the ultimate JFK leader — everything was about the family of the Cougar nation for her,” Gary Morganstern, president of the Bellmore JFK Alumni Association, said last week. “There was no calling that was too much for her.”
Little is known about Poppe’s life outside school halls — she rarely spoke about herself, and an obituary was not posted on the website of the funeral home where her wake was held.
According to Lynch, she lived in Baldwin as a teenager and graduated from the high school in the late 1960s. In 1974 she returned as an English teacher.
Tina Sands, a BHS alumna, said Poppe held her students’ attention in the classroom, unlike many other teachers. “I was a bit of a daydreamer,” Sands, who now lives in Florida, acknowledged, “but she kept me awake by her fun sense of humor, fairness and kindness.”
Dix Hills resident Ronnie Grill, a 1983 BHS graduate, said Poppe was one of the few teachers she had memories of. “I remember her blond hair and her great smile,” Grill said.
That smile, Lynch said, never left Poppe’s face — no matter what was happening. “She is one of the few people who I never saw mean, sullen or sad,” Lynch said. “She was just a very upbeat, outstanding professional who never let the politics of life interfere with her life.”
Grill said that Poppe took the time to get to know each of her students. She recalled having a wisdom tooth removed, and afterward sitting in class, not feeling well. “Ms. Poppe took me to the side and asked me if everything was OK,” Grill recalled. “She didn’t know I had a wisdom tooth pulled, but she could tell I wasn’t myself. That was the kind of teacher she was.”
Poppe had the same effect on students as principal at Kennedy. Ron Steiger, public relations director for the JFK Alumni Association, recalled her zeal for education in all forms, and how she would cheer students on at “virtually every co-curricular event.” Before being named Kennedy’s principal, Poppe served as master teacher, dean of students and assistant principal at BHS. “Lorraine Poppe’s commitment to excellence and love for the students, faculty and staff is her legacy,” Steiger said.
Kennedy Student Government President Jonathan Mashal posted a statement the day she died, noting that Poppe was his principal for two years, and “she was incredibly influential on the school’s culture.”
“Over her 23-year career as principal, she helped mold the educational program that we are all a part of today, and was responsible for the hiring of almost all of the amazing teachers that we have the opportunity to learn from every day,” Mashal said. “Ms. Poppe’s passion for education and for Kennedy High School will be felt for generations, leaving an undeniable footprint on our school and community.”
Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District Superintendent John DeTommaso said last week that it was hard to put Poppe’s legacy into words — a “kind, gracious, caring person and educator.”
“She loved staff and she loved kids and she represented all that was great about JFK,” DeTommaso said. “Honestly, she cared so much about JFK that it’s just more than any staff member or student could have ever hoped for, having her as a principal for 23 years.”
When Poppe announced her retirement last year, Kennedy’s acting principal at the time, Dave Seinfeld, praised her “long and storied career.”
“I’ve known Ms. Poppe for the past 15 years,” Seinfeld said, “and I can say without any hesitation that there is no educator I have met who is more dedicated to her school, the staff and its students.”
Last week, Seinfeld reflected on the “thousands and thousands” of lives touched by Poppe. “I had the honor of being her sub” when she retired, he said, “and it was clear how she did an incredible job of running one of the best schools in the country.”
“I had 15 years of experience,” he added, “and still looked up to her.”
Poppe’s wake was held April 18 at Weigand Brothers Funeral Home in Williston Park, and her funeral was held the next day at First Presbyterian Church in Mineola. She was buried at Nassau Knolls Cemetery in Port Washington. Information on surviving family members was not available as the Herald went to press.
Erik Hawkins and Andrew Garcia contributed to this obituary.