Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt on Friday announced the sudden death of school Superintendent Cara Murtagh, a longtime educator in the city.
“I was honored to work with Cara every day and proud to call her my friend,” Bettencourt wrote in a Facebook post. “Her selfless devotion to our students, faculty, and staff, combined with her lifelong passion for education, lifted the entire Peabody school community.”
Bettencourt did not say how or when Murtagh died.
Murtagh, 44, led the nearly 6,000-student school district since July 2018, after serving six years as assistant superintendent. On Wednesday, she posted a message on the School Department’s website “Wishing our students, staff, and families a very Happy & Healthy Thanksgiving!”
News of her death stunned current and former colleagues.
Herb Levine, a former interim Peabody superintendent who mentored Murtagh, called her “. . . not only a close work partner, but a close personal friend.”
“Cara had an unbelievable work ethic, unmatched really, but there was so much more to Cara,” said Levine, a retired Salem school superintendent. “Kids would come up to her with a glisten in their eyes to say ‘Hi’ to her. They adored her because she made sure they all had a fair and even chance to succeed.”
Murtagh hailed from a well-known family active in education and civic life in Peabody. Her late father, Jack, was a teacher and 37-year principal of the Kiley Brothers Memorial School. Another relative was also a longtime teacher in the district, Levine said.
“She was part of the fabric of the city,” he said. “She can’t be replaced.”
Mary Henry, president of the Peabody teachers’ union, recalled having “such a nice conversation with her this past Wednesday.”
Henry said she had known Murtagh for about 15 years.
“She was always available for us,” she said. “It’s a devastating loss for the community.”
Murtagh made an effort to know everyone in the district, including educators, students, and parents, she said.
“I’d mention a teacher’s name, and she always knew exactly who they were,” Henry said. “With so many educators and students — it was remarkable.”
Mark Whiting, the manager of Northshore Mall in Peabody, worked with Murtagh for 20 years through the Peabody Learning Academy, an alternative high school located inside the mall.
“She was an amazing educator, an amazing leader, and just a tremendous collaborative spirit,” Whiting said. “She will be so terribly missed.”
Murtagh had planned to attend a wake on Friday for 13-year-old Jackson Frechette, a Peabody middle school student who died after being hit by a car on Nov. 19, Whiting said.
“That’s just the kind [person] that she was,” he said, adding he admired her devotion to students and teachers in the schools. “She had a great sense of humor [and] just exuded positivity.”
Murtagh graduated from Emmanuel College in 1997 with a degree in education and history, and earned a graduate degree in educational leadership and administration in 2000, according to the college’s website.
Murtagh started teaching in 1997 at St. John the Baptist School in Peabody. The Catholic school mourned her death in a Facebook post.
“We were fortunate to have Cara as a first-grade teacher in 1997/1998 before she moved on to the Peabody school system administration,” the school wrote. “This is a great loss for our city. Our prayers are with the entire Murtagh family.”