Shelia Smith, Exuberant Teacher’s Aide, Dies at 61

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Shelia Smith was raised in rural Alabama and had an irresistible ebullience. “She never met a stranger,” her daughter, Shunkisha D. Smith, said.

Friends, fellow educators and students embraced her with diminutives like “She-LIE-a,” “She-Fi” and “G-Mama.” She was a fixture for more than two decades at Straughn Elementary School in Andalusia, in Covington County, not far from the state’s southern border with Louisiana.

Her job title was instructional aide, or paraprofessional. But colleagues said that belied her everyday impact and legacy.

“Shelia was special in so many ways: witty, energetic, fun-loving, personable, faithful, loyal, loud, fashionable, entertaining, enthusiastic,” Bettye Anne Older, the school’s principal, said in an email.

“She loved big! Shelia loved our students and community, her family and her church, Alabama football and local sports teams,” Ms. Older added. “The special needs students that she worked with always felt special because of her, and she cared deeply for them.”

Mrs. Smith was vaccinated against the coronavirus on Feb. 4. While she regularly wore a mask and frequently used hand sanitizer, she was already showing symptoms of the disease, and she tested positive the next day.

She was admitted to a hospital on Feb. 10. Two days later, she was transferred to Mobile Infirmary, where she died of complications of Covid-19 on March 26, her daughter said. She was 61.

Shelia Diane Robinson was born in Andalusia on Feb. 7, 1960, to Comer C. Daniels, who died of Covid-19 in November, and Ethel B. (Robinson) Graham.

She graduated in 1978 from Andalusia High School, where she was voted “class favorite” in her sophomore and senior years. Active in the First Baptist Church, she married Durrell Smith, who was the director of parks in Andalusia, in 1987. He died in 2012.

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Smith is survived by four brothers, seven sisters, two grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Straughn Elementary’s students come mostly from low-income families. Mrs. Smith worked primarily with children who had autism and other special needs.

“They were her passion,” her daughter said in a phone interview. “Her love for children is what drove her to do what she loved: helping and encouraging others to be the best they can be.”

Ms. Older said that Mrs. Smith “could make them laugh, she could make them do anything. The kids loved her openness and her ‘Hump Day’ antics on Wednesdays.”

“We could never be able to replace her,” Ms. Older said. “She was loud and proud. A real Southern lady.”

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