Superior fire claims life of retired music teacherA retired music teacher from Superior High School is dead after a house fire Monday morning at her home on Billings Drive in Superior.
By: Christa Lawler, Duluth News Tribune
A retired music teacher from Superior High School is dead after a house fire Monday morning at her home on Billings Drive in Superior.
Jean Sweeney, who retired in the mid-1990s, was currently the hand-bell choir director at Pilgrim Lutheran Church, where she was a member, and United Presbyterian Church in Superior.
The fire was reported at 11:10 a.m. — including a report of an elderly resident possibly still in the house — and there already were flames visible when firefighters got to the scene, according to Battalion Fire Chief Vern Johnson.
“Plainly the fire had been burning unnoticed for quite some time previous to being discovered and reported,” Johnson said. “Crews made numerous attempts at searches and interior fire attacks, repeatedly turned back by fire and heat.”
They were still on the scene in the mid-afternoon.
Dennis Arras, Sweeney’s cousin, said the family got the call about the fire in progress on Monday morning. He didn’t have details on how it started.
“She was very talented, loving, kind and just a genuine person,” he said. “She was just a boon to society in Superior. She was extremely well-liked.”
When he posted about Sweeney’s death on Facebook, Arras said he was immediately contacted by dozens of her former students.
Her husband, Donald Sweeney, died less than a decade ago, Arras said. They did not have children. Sweeney’s stepbrother Myles Myers lives outside of the Twin Cities and described her as “just a sweetie.”
On Monday night, members of Sweeney’s hand-bell choir gathered at United Presbyterian before their usual weekly practice. She had been the director for about the past eight years, according to choir members.
“She had an amazing ear,” said the Rev. Joel Huenemann, who played in the choir.
“It’s not uncommon to have eight or nine bells (play) at the same time. She could not only hear the wrong bell; she could tell when a bell didn’t ring. She was a very accomplished musician and a good bell choir director.”
Sweeney, taught Katie Bates at Superior High School — and Bates’ mother had Sweeney as an English teacher at Superior Central, she said.
“She was one of my favorite teachers in high school,” Bates said. “She had a good sense and an appreciation for music and was able to share it on (the students’) level.”
Sweeney retired soon after Bates graduated in 1990s.
Malinda Carlson, another former student, also was recruited by Sweeney. The two developed a friendship outside of choir, Carlson said.
“She was always fun, peppy, and she hardly ever let things bother her,” Carlson said. “She always had a positive attitude.”
Richard Ford, a former choir director at Superior High School, said Sweeney liked classics and old showtunes.
“The nice tunes from the 1940s and ’50s,” he said. “She didn’t go much for the modern stuff.”
Curt Hanson, choir director at Pilgrim Lutheran, called Sweeney “a very competent musician.”
“She worked really well with people,” he said. “I know there were a lot of people who enjoyed playing under her. She was somebody who loved people and loved life, from what I knew about her.”
The fire followed an earlier traumatic event affecting Sweeney. In April 2002, a van she was driving was struck from behind by another vehicle on the Blatnik Bridge, according a News Tribune account of court testimony.
The incident was part of a chain of events involving four vehicles, leading to the death of a Minnesota Department of Transportation bridge worker who fell from the bridge after being struck.
News Tribune staff writer Steve Kuchera contributed to this report.