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Tanny Vonthron always a smile away

Alissa Widman Neese • Mar 18, 2014 at 12:50 PM

A sea of yellow smiley faces has settled on Huron, forming a city-wide memorial for one of its most beloved educators.

Looking at their vibrant grins, you can't help but smile — and the woman who made them her logo likely wouldn't want it any other way.

Satanta "Tanny" Vonthron, 39, of Huron, died Wednesday at home after a lengthy battle with cancer. 

But most who knew her said it was rarely apparent she was fighting.

"She never said she was dying of cancer, she said she was living with cancer," said her younger sister, Emma Vonthron. "She was always in the moment."

Read Vonthron's obituary HERE

Tanny had been Shawnee Elementary School principal since 2008. She previously worked as a Huron Schools special education teacher. She graduated from Huron High School in 1992, and took great pride in returning to work in her hometown, Emma said.

But in 2009, Tanny's rewarding career faced a serious obstacle: doctors diagnosed her with a rare, aggressive form of cancer.

Throughout her battle, she always wore a contagious smile — and she surrounded herself with them, too.

Yellow smiley faces, which to her, symbolized courage, covered her school, encouraging the district's youngest students to be brave. Her office walls, her smiley face stickers, her car, and many of her clothes were yellow.

The symbol and color became her trademark in Huron. They emulated her persona.

Click HERE for photos of Smiles for Tanny

"She made the world a brighter, happier place," her friend and hair stylist Holly Ensign said. 

Despite several surgeries, dozens of radiation treatments and months of chemotherapy, doctors could never cure Tanny's disease, said Dr. Brian Murphy, from North Coast Cancer Care.

But if she lost her hair during treatments, she wouldn't complain. She'd simply put on a headband with a giant yellow flower, to ensure her students weren't frightened by her altered appearance.

"Not once did she ask 'Why me?'" Murphy said. "She was always very positive and cared about other people more than herself. She touched the lives of everyone she encountered in a way we won't ever forget."

Click HERE to read about one student who was inspired by Vonthron

For the past week, Huron residents have plastered yellow smiley faces across the city in Tanny's honor, to uplift her spirits, as well as her family's, during her final days.

Her sister said the family will remember Tanny for her passionate work, as well as her private moments, including games of Uno on holidays, vacations to Hawaii, and trips to the grocery store, where local children treated her like a celebrity.

"I'm in awe of how much life she squeezed into her 39 years, more than most people could do in 89," Emma said. "But even when she was the busiest, she gave you all of her attention, to make sure you felt special. She proved selfless people do exist. I just hope the rest of us rise to the occasion."

On Friday, all district students wore yellow in remembrance of Tanny, and some shared their memories.

Many had the privilege of eating lunch with her if they won the "smiley face award" for displaying random acts of kindness while attending Shawnee Elementary School.

"Ms. Vonthron was a very lovable person who loved to share her smiles, hugs and love every day, even through tough times of her life," fifth-grader Makenna Pender said. "Even though she will be missed, she will be with us forever."

Tanny was named the 2012 Woman of the Year at Girls' Night Out, an annual charity event benefitting local cancer-related programs. The distinction, the event's highest honor, recognizes an exceptional woman who has impacted the lives of cancer patients and survivors.

Click HERE for more on the Girls' Night Out 2012 Woman of the Year 

Her other accomplishments include earning her bachelor's and master's degrees from Bowling Green State University and her superintendent's license from the University of Findlay. She was president of Chi Omega sorority and worked in its administration offices in Tennessee after college. She has also published many children's books for HighReach Learning in North Carolina. 

The Vonthron family plans to host a "Celebration of Life" from 1 to 8 p.m. March 23 at Mesenberg's. 

The family is also working with Huron Schools to establish a Tanny Vonthron Scholarship Fund. Gosser Brothers Screen Printing is now selling smiley face T-shirts, with a portion of the proceeds benefitting the scholarship.

Counseling services help students cope

Huron Schools placed a "crisis team" of counselors throughout its buildings Thursday and Friday to assist grieving students, superintendent Dennis Muratori said Friday.

The team included individuals from the Stein Hospice bereavement team, Bayshore Counseling Services, local faith-based leaders and district administrators.

"They, as well as our teachers, did a fantastic job yesterday making our kids feel comfortable and safe, and letting them know it was OK to experience different emotions," Muratori said. "We sent a letter home with students letting them know the local resources that are available, and encouraged parents to talk with their kids about this as well."

"It certainly goes without saying that our hearts, thoughts and prayers are with Tanny's family during this time," he said.

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