Nina Schutzman, The Poughkeepsie (NY) Journal
WAPPINGERS FALLS, NY-- The question that always came to mind when Wappingers Central School District co-workers and parents thought of JoAnn Nichols has been answered.
"Where's JoAnn?" said former teacher's aide Mary Jo Santagate. "That's all we wondered for years. ... Where could she be?"
The 55-year-old teacher disappeared in December 1985.
On Friday, JoAnn Nichols' remains were found hidden in the basement of the home she shared with her husband, James L. Nichols Jr., who died of natural causes in December at 82.
On Monday, her remains were identified and her cause of death was found to be blunt trauma to her head, according to Dr. Kari Reiber, Dutchess County medical examiner and acting health commissioner.
Santagate worked with JoAnn Nichols, who taught first grade at Vassar Road Elementary School in Poughkeepsie until she was transferred to Gayhead Elementary School in Hopewell Junction.
Her students "absolutely adored her," Santagate said.
Marilynn Shultz, a former Wappingers school board member whose term expired Sunday, said her youngest son was in JoAnn Nichols's class.
"He loved her," Shultz said. "She was such a pleasure as a teacher."
Nobody could believe the circumstances surrounding her disappearance, Shultz and Santagate said.
"(Over the years,) I'd meet a lot of fellow teachers, and we never stopped wondering what happened," Santagate said.
Different theories floated around the circles of friends.
But everyone thought her husband, James Nichols, had something to do with it, Shultz and Santagate said.
"This is so sad," Shultz said. "She always went the extra mile for her students. Even my other children who were in the school (who didn't have her as a teacher) said how nice she was."
Which must have been difficult, Shultz said, since she was wrestling with the pain of her only child's death.
According to Journal archives and loved ones, JoAnn and James Nichols' only child, 25-year-old James "Ticker" Nichols III, drowned in May 1982. The younger James Nichols died while riding on the hood of an Amphicar, a floating car that he owned, in Sardis Lake in Mississippi.
After JoAnn Nichols' disappearance, police found a note on a home computer that indicated suicide may have been a possibility.
"She was very upset, obviously, but she was a cheerful, upbeat person," Shultz said. "Nobody could believe she was the type to just leave."
Many of JoAnn Nichols' former colleagues are no longer in the area, Santagate said.
But the ones who are shared memories they had of the schoolteacher, still remembered as a woman who made students "love learning."
"She was so loving with those children," Santagate said.
Superintendent Marco Pochintesta said there's a "feeling of shock and sadness" in the district.
"As a community of educators, our heart goes out to the family and we express our condolences for their loss," Pochintesta said.
There's no memorial planned now, but district officials typically recognize the "loss of a teacher or a professional in the district with a moment of silence before a board meeting," he said.
There is some closure now, Santagate said.
"There is justice up in heaven," Santagate said.