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Hundreds gather in Fairfield to mourn slain teacher Nohema Graber

Kate Payne / IPR
Hundreds of people gathered outside Fairfield High School on Friday evening to honor the life of Nohema Graber. Investigators believe the 66-year-old Spanish teacher was killed by students who attend the school.

Hundreds of people gathered in Fairfield Friday evening to honor the life of Nohema Graber, a beloved Spanish teacher who investigators believe was killed by two high school students. Graber is being remembered as an inspiring educator and a devoted friend who touched the hearts of scores of Fairfield students.

Hundreds of candles lit up the darkness outside Fairfield High School on Friday, as mourners gathered outside the school gym to sing, pray and share stories of Nohema Graber.

FHS Speech and English teacher Fred Hucke, whose classroom is down the hall from Graber’s, penned a song in her memory.

“We go on, though the world is something less. And while someone else sorts out just who’s to blame, it’s our job to tend to the living,” Hucke sang to the crowd of hundreds of mourners. “Light a candle and raise it high. A light for Nohema.”

Kate Payne / IPR
Mourners lit candles and left flowers to honor slain Fairfield High School Spanish teacher Nohema Graber. She is being remembered as an inspiring educator and devoted friend.

A 66-year-old mother of three who taught at the school for 9 years, Graber was a devout Catholic and a beloved member of the Latino community. Graber was born in Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz state in Mexico, and later moved with her family to Fairfield, where her now ex-husband grew up, according to the Des Moines Register.

Loved ones and faith leaders have called her violent death a shocking and senseless tragedy.

“Nohema meant so much to us,” Maria Jimenez said. “She was considered part of my family. I would be selfish if I say just my family, because everyone in the Hispanic community considered her as part of their family.”

Jimenez said Graber was a fixture at family events and holiday gatherings, and that she loved to dance to Latin music and celebrate her Mexican heritage.

Just this week, Graber was quoted in the local newspaper’s account of a Día de los Muertos celebration at the Fairfield Library.

“We know we’re all going to die,” the Southeast Iowa Union quoted Graber as saying. “It’s our way of laughing at death.”

Graber was an active member of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Fairfield, where she served as something of a liaison between the congregation and the Latino community in the area. She attended Mass daily, according to Father Nick Adam.

Graber prayed often for her students, who she called “her kids," according to a member of her prayer group.

Graber gave her students a love of language and culture, encouraging some to go into teaching themselves. Jimenez said she will never forget the moment she told Graber she planned to go to college to study education.

“Ever since, every time we see each other, she wouldn’t hesitate and the first thing she would ask after giving me a huge hug and a kiss on my cheek, was about my classes,” Jimenez said. “She was hoping that I could one day take over her position.”

Kate Payne / IPR
Fairfield High School students shared their memories of Nohema Graber and signed a banner that will be given to her family. Graber leaves behind three grown children.

Graber was reported missing Wednesday and her remains were found later that day in the city’s Chautauqua Park, where she loved to take walks. Investigators announced Thursday they had arrested two 16-year-old boys, both students at FHS, and charged them as adults with first degree murder and first degree conspiracy to commit homicide.

IPR is currently withholding their names because they are juveniles. The teens are scheduled to appear in court on Nov. 12 for preliminary hearings.

In social media posts, Graber’s children have urged forgiveness for their mother’s accused killers.

“I forgive them and feel sorry that they had that anger in their hearts,” reads a Facebook post from Christian Graber, one of her sons. “There’s no point in being angry at them. We should hope that they can find peace in their lives.”

Nohema Marie Graber, the daughter of the slain teacher, agreed with her brother, writing “all we can do is forgive”.

“We had the wonderful fortune of growing up in a home filled with such an abundance of warmth and love,” Graber wrote on Facebook. “To the two teenagers that so cruelly took her life, it is clear that they need more love and light in their hearts.”

At the vigil in her memory, Graber’s loved ones and faith leaders urged residents to turn to each other for support, to reach out for help when they need it, and to remember the joy and light that Graber brought to their lives.

“We love you very much, Maestra Nohema,” Jimenez said. “I am sorry I didn’t say it enough.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter