HANOVER, Ill. — Although her favorite color was blue, Celia Hartman loved sunflowers. She decorated her home and classroom with the blooms and carried them in her wedding bouquet.
The bright yellow flowers were a fitting hue for the woman who constantly brought sunshine into the lives of others.
“She was just completely joyful all the time, and she always had a smile on her face,” said Michelle Kelzer, a friend and colleague of Celia’s at River Ridge Elementary School.
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Celia, a teacher in the rural Hanover school district, died on Jan. 3 following a battle with COVID-19. She was 32 years old.
Now, her friends and family, and the small district where she not only taught but also attended elementary through high school, are left to pick up the pieces.
“She was my other half,” said longtime friend Tarin Grube, of Hanover. “She has been with me my entire life. I really thought we would grow old together.”
Celia Priegel was born on Dec. 29, 1989, and grew up in Elizabeth.
In kindergarten at River Ridge Elementary School, she befriended Michelle Kelzer’s daughter, now Kristi Schauer.
Grube completed their trio of friends, and soon, the three girls were as close as sisters. They spent their days shopping and making crafts, and their nights hosting slumber parties or campouts at each other’s homes in Elizabeth.
“I was very shy in elementary school, and Celia has never been shy, so I think that’s why we hit it off,” said Schauer. “She was fearless. She was always the life of the party, and she had some sass to her that we loved.”
Kelzer said Celia became one of the family, attending family gatherings and bonding with Kelzer’s parents.
“Celia has never really met a stranger,” Kelzer said. “Everybody was a friend to her, and lots of those friends became family.”
Celia graduated from River Ridge High School in 2008 and attended Ashford University in Clinton, Iowa. There, she met Travis Hartman, who had grown up in nearby Thomson.
The two bonded as fellow education majors but did not begin dating until a few years later, when they reconnected following the death of Celia’s mother in November 2013.
“We have a lot of similar passions for education and our students,” said Travis, who teaches fourth grade at West Carroll Primary School in Savanna. “We’re kind of opposite people, personality-wise, but we balance each other out.”
The fall of 2013 also saw Celia return to her home district as an educator. She was hired as a second-grade teacher at River Ridge Elementary School, remaining at that grade level until she transitioned to teach preschool in the fall of 2021.
Kelzer, who had watched Celia grow up alongside her daughter, now worked closely with her as a colleague.
She described Celia as a “hands-on, all-in teacher” who offered emotional support, patience and understanding for every student, particularly those who acted out or might need extra guidance.
Laura Kuzniar, principal of River Ridge Elementary School, said Celia was kind, thoughtful and perceptive of the needs of others.
“Coming into her classroom was always really positive and really caring,” Kuzniar said. “It was just such a wonderful place where she expressed daily to all of her students how much she cared about them and how important they are and what they meant to our classroom community.”
Celia and Travis married on May 13, 2017, and enjoyed a roadtrip honeymoon through Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah.
They resided in Travis’ childhood home in Thomson, a half-hour drive to Hanover for Celia. But teaching in her home district was so special to her that she never complained, Travis said.
“She had no problem with the driving back and forth because she loved it there so much,” he said.
Outside of work, the two enjoyed traveling and spending time outside with family.
This, of course, included friends like Grube, who said her children called Celia their aunt. She recalled how Celia would do anything for her friends, even coming to Grube’s house to help care for her sick children at 1 a.m. when Grube’s husband was working a night shift.
“You could be in the worst moment of your life, and she would drop everything to help you,” Grube said. “You could tell her anything, and she would never judge you or hold anything against you.”
Celia tested positive for COVID-19 on Dec. 2, Travis said. At first, her symptoms were little more than a cold, but when she experienced trouble breathing on Dec. 10, the couple checked her into the hospital in Clinton.
She remained there for almost a week before being transferred to University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. After more than two weeks on a ventilator in Iowa City, Celia died on Jan. 3.
This week, Travis’ and Celia’s school districts have come together to support her family in the wake of her death. During the River Ridge/Scales Mound girls basketball game against West Carroll on Thursday at River Ridge High School, a silent auction will be held to benefit the Hartman family.
The River Ridge Middle School business class also will sell magnets featuring an image of Celia along with an anonymous quote, “Advice from a Sunflower.”
“Even on the darkest days, stand tall and find the sun,” the magnet reads, in part.
Travis said that sentiment perfectly captures Celia’s personality.
“Even though people are sad about her death … she would want people to find the happy points in it, even though that’s hard to do right now,” he said.