TWIN FALLS — Jennifer Crystal never stopped thinking about her students and athletes even when she was off the field and out of her classroom.
“I respect her a lot,” said Levi Perkins, a former student and colleague. “Even until her dying breath she was still reaching to out to people to mentor them.”
Crystal died Aug. 19 in her home surrounded by family and friends.
“This is a huge loss to our community, said Michele Capps, superintendent of Murtaugh Joint School District. “It’s impacted everyone.”
Crystal, 56, started working at Murtaugh High School in 1990 and retired last year as she became ill.
She was a longtime track coach, health and physical education teacher. After leaving the school district, she continued to be a big part of the school, even serving as a mentor to former students who coached at the school.
“She was one of the most positive people I had ever been around,” Capps said “And she expected people around her to be the same. It was not something she talked about, it was something she lived. She was very positive and moved forward with life one day at a time.”
Crystal also enjoyed spending time outdoors with her husband, Danny Crystal, and their two sons, Sky, 25, and Alexander, 27. She loved biking, running, skiing, hiking, camping and rafting.
Growing up, Sky and his brother weren’t allowed to have video games. Instead, his mother insisted they go outside and play.
“She always got mad at my brother and I if we were ever sitting on our phones,” Sky said. “She really wanted us to go outside and be in nature. We spent a lot of time in a canoe and going on hikes and eating sandwiches. Those memories were quite special.”
Sky said his mother never dwelled on her cancer diagnosis because it didn’t define her.
“We are nothing but thankful for the time we had with our mom,” he said. “My mom’s cancer wasn’t my mom, and it was something that didn’t keep her from living either.”
Perkins helped Crystal coach Murtaugh’s track team last year and was her assistant track coach from 2002 to 2003. Crystal was his teacher and track coach for four years. Perkins competed in the long jump, triple jump and the 400-meter dash. He graduated from Murtaugh High School in 2000.
“The best word I can describe her with is she was a builder,” Perkins said. “She could see talents in people and build on those to make you feel good about yourself.”
She approached him to become her assistant track coach not long after he had accepted a job as an instructor for the College of Southern Idaho’s diesel technology program.
Perkins said she told him his skills were better spent on people and not on things.
“It was honestly one of the best experience I had to be with young people again,” he said. “To see them succeed — I was really glad she conned me into doing it.”
And he stepped up again last year when Crystal told him she could no longer coach.
“I think she was awesome,” Perkins said. “When we think about people and their life’s work, I thought she had an amazing ability to reach out to individuals and sacrifice her time and effort to make them better. I have a lot of regard for her as an educator, and not just an educator, but as someone who cared about people.”
Clayton Nebeker, Murtaugh’s boys basketball coach, was a former student of Crystal’s and a colleague. He coached track with her for four years.
When she stopped coaching last year, Nebeker said, she still kept tabs on her students by sending him text messages and emails.
“Jennifer was the type of person who was always worried about kids,” he said. “When she got sick and she wasn’t around school as much she’d randomly think about a kid and text or message me about the kid and asked how we could help them. She was always wanting to keep in touch to see how she could help kids. That was really her main focus in her life — other people.”
Nebeker didn’t participate in track during high school, but said he gained a new respect for the sport and his former teacher.
“I don’t think people realize what all goes into a track meet,” he said. “Jennifer spent time with every single kid to get them to do their very, very best. She made it a point to go around and spend time with every single kid.”
And it wasn’t just her athletes she cared about.
“She was the type of person at the finish line of a race who wasn’t just concerned about her athletes, but she was concerned about everyone’s athletes,” Nebeker. “She always went out of her way to congratulate the winner of the race to the last person to cross the finish line. She was always concerned about every athlete there and not just the ones from Murtaugh.”