Gayle E. Pickhardt, a longtime Harbour School educator whose specialty was working with special needs students, died of pancreatic cancer Saturday at Gilchrist Center in Columbia. The Catonsville resident was 55.
“One of the many tragedies surrounding Gayle’s death is that she never lost heart whether it was working with a disabled kid or fighting cancer,” said Dr. Linda J. Jacobs, executive director of The Harbour School.
“That kid was going to learn how to read and do math, no matter how many failures. They were going to learn,” Dr. Jacobs said. “She was a very talented teacher who shared her talents with her colleagues. We have a thing we call Harbour Magic, and a teacher told me that Gayle showed her what Harbour Magic meant.”
Ms. Pickhardt brought the same spirit and determination to fighting her cancer as she did caring for her students.
“She’d say, ‘I’m never going to lose heart because there’s always a win with cancer.’ She was a valiant warrior and gave us all courage the way she fought,” Dr. Jacobs said.
Steve Cole’s son, John, who is autistic, was a student of Ms. Pickhardt’s.
“Gayle was a major angel here on earth,” Mr. Cole said. “What she did in life brought happiness to so many people.”
The former Gayle Elizabeth Adamecz, daughter of Robert Adamecz, owner of Royal Doors and Hardware, and his wife, Kay Adamecz, who worked in the bursar’s office at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was born in Baltimore and raised in Catonsville.
After graduating from Catonsville High School in 1984, she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, in 1988 and 1990, respectively, from Western Maryland College, now McDaniel College, in Westminster.
From 1990 to 1999, Ms. Pickhardt taught in Howard County Public Schools until joining the faculty of The Harbour School, a special needs school in Owings Mills. The school also has a second campus at Cape St. Claire, near Annapolis.
“From the day she began in August of 1999, Gayle saw her role as a special educator as one that meets the holistic needs of each individual student. Gayle worked tirelessly to assist each student as seeing him/herself as a learner,” Dr. Jacobs wrote in a profile of Ms. Pickhardt. “Her technical expertise, especially in reading, is undisputed and many students who had never been successful learned basic literacy skills because of her dedication.”
During her years at The Harbour School, Ms. Pickhardt was a lead teacher, team leader and mentor, Dr. Jacobs said, and when her health began to fail, she returned to the school as an assistant teacher and worked with students through direct instruction as well as working with the school’s reading teachers. She also mentored and coached young staff, helping mold them into teachers who would make an “impact on the world,” Dr. Jacobs said.
“Dr. Jacobs said her “influence as a special educator went far beyond the classroom.”
“Her commitment to each students’ social emotional growth can be found in her work with the Girl’s Club, cheerleading, assistance with performing arts shows and making her ‘Catonsville bus’ after sports and clubs so that students who did not have transportation could still participate,” she wrote.
Mr. Cole’s son, John, was 8 years old when his mother died.
“I could see that special bond between John and Gayle,” Mr. Cole said. “It was so special and they needed each other. She was a godsend and a surrogate mother to him. I feel as if she’s part of our family.”
When Mr. Cole had to go out of town on business, his son would stay at Ms. Pickhardt’s home.
She was diagnosed five years ago with the cancer that would eventually claim her life.
“Gayle said she’d hang on until John graduated from Harbour and that was three years ago,” Mr. Cole said. “And when John found out that Miss Gayle, that’s what he called her, had died, he cried. Her death is a devastating loss for our family.”
Meryl L. Stevenson, a social worker at the school, has known Ms. Pickhardt since 2016.
“Gayle was I think someone who exuded goodness,” Ms. Stevenson said. “She was one of those people who had so much warmth. She was calm and always went above and beyond, and was truly kind and loving.”
Dana L. Bayer has been at The Harbour School for 20 years and teaches in its lower school.
“She was one of my best friends and an amazing person. She helped the kids so much and members of the staff,” Ms. Bayer said.
“The kids absolutely loved her and she knew they needed after-school socialization activities, so she’d drive them home if they needed a ride,” Ms. Bayer said. “If they had needs at home for food or clothes, then she’d provide.”
Said Dr. Jacobs: “She mustered all of the energy she had to come to graduation in June. Normally, she’d march in with the faculty, but she couldn’t this year.”
Ms. Pickhardt was honored at graduation for her devotion to the students and the school, which always sings “Wind Beneath My Wings,” the 1989 Bette Midler song from the “Beaches” soundtrack album, at graduation, Dr. Jacobs said.
“Gayle is truly the ‘wind beneath the wings’ of students and staff,” Dr. Jacobs said during the 2021 high school ceremony that honored Ms. Pickhardt. “Each of the students she touched is better able to live fully in the community, and each staff member she touched is a better professional for her service.”
In a thank-you note to Ms. Pickhardt, a parent had written: “Thank you for what you did for our son, for all those kids you taught with grace, competence and love. No one who has been touched by you will ever forget you.”
Even as a cancer patient who made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, with her mother and sister and the Order of Malta in 2017, Ms. Pickhardt volunteered to return for the next two years to assist others on their own healing journeys.
A devout Roman Catholic, she liked studying the lives of the saints and visiting shrines associated with them with her husband of 28 years, Paul J. Pickhardt, a Department of Defense program manager.
The couple, who were oenophiles, enjoyed traveling to California, and especially to Sonoma County, where they liked to sample famous wines. She was an avid reader and watch collector.
Ms. Pickhardt was a communicant of St. Joseph’s Monastery Parish.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Mark Roman Catholic Church, 30 Melvin Ave., Catonsville.
In addition to her husband, she is survived by her mother, Kay Adamecz of Catonsville; a sister, Karyn Morgan of Catonsville; and many cousins, nieces and nephews.