FAYETTEVILLE — Martha Agee was well known for the career she spent helping students stay in school, but perhaps even more memorable to those who knew her was her compassion for others.
“She was so good at caring for these kids and making them feel good about themselves,” said Tom Triplett of Springdale, a longtime friend and former co-worker of Agee. “She always had a kind word or something nice to say about every kid every day, and that’s a unique quality.”
Agee died Tuesday at the age of 89. The Fayetteville School District announced Agee’s death in a Facebook post Wednesday, calling her a “pioneer in developing both the ways and the means for at-risk students to remain in school.”
She was inducted into the School District’s Hall of Honor in 2011.
She teamed with Carmen Lierly in 1972 to found Uptown School, an alternative school within the School District designed to help dropouts or students at risk of dropping out earn their high school diploma or a GED.
Uptown was the first alternative school in Northwest Arkansas and was used as a model by many school districts throughout the country, according to her Hall of Honor biography.
Agee served as a counselor and teacher through 1988, then became the school’s director until her retirement in 1996, according to the biography.
Uptown School later became part of the Agee Lierly Life Preparation Services Center, known today as the ALLPS School of Innovation.
Lori Lamb, president of the Arkansas Association of Alternative Educators, said in a Facebook post that Agee changed lives for the better in Arkansas and nationally. Arkansas has the best alternative education programs, resources and support mechanisms in the nation, “much due to her trailblazing at Uptown,” Lamb said.
Denice Nelson, a retired Fayetteville schoolteacher, worked with Agee at Uptown, and the two became friends. Nelson said she held Agee’s hand the day before Agee died.
Agee had unconditional love for all the students who came through the school, Nelson said. Agee’s former students always talk about her smile, she said.
“Her smile was just something she was known for, she smiled all the time,” Nelson said. “She even smiled when she was mad. She’d say, ‘No, I don’t think you should be doing that right now.’ And it was hard for anybody to feel rebellious when she was smiling at you like that.”
Triplett, who later served as the district’s director of student affairs before retiring in 2012, said every student who went through Uptown School loved Agee.
“It was a family. All the kids that were there were all part of the same family,” he said.
Until the early 1990s, Uptown was the only alternative for pregnant students to stay in school, allowing many pregnant girls to complete their education, according to Agee’s Hall of Honor biography. She was instrumental in changing state law and institutional attitudes toward pregnant students, and she and others at Uptown also helped change the Arkansas law that denied access to education to students who did not have a permanent address, the biography states.
Agee also volunteered with numerous nonprofit organizations over the years, including Youth Bridge Inc. and Altrusa International of Fayetteville, at one time serving as president of the latter.
Nelson called Agee her mentor, adding she felt comfortable telling Agee anything.
“She never judged; she always loved you,” Nelson said. “So when things were good, bad or ugly, it didn’t matter. She never wavered. She was always a friend.”
No funeral services have been arranged yet, according to Nelson.
Agee was preceded in death by her husband, Dr. Jacob Agee, in 1997. The couple had four children.
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