District remembers benevolent lives of two cherished staff members


Columbia Heights Public Schools Communications Department

Ms. Karen Crotty, far left, and Mr. Rick Ostby, far right, are fondly remembered by staff, students and families from across the district because of their commitment to their professions and the care they displayed for many.

By Kwot Anwey, Columbia Heights High School

One can only imagine the toll that two staff deaths in one school district can take on a community, especially in such a short amount of time. The sudden passings of Ms. Karen Crotty of North Park Elementary and Mr. Rick Ostby of Columbia Academy will forever be remembered by those whose hearts they touched every day. 

Mr. Rick Ostby, after having grown up in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, graduated from Bemidji State University with a degree in Special Education and went on to attend St. Cloud State University for both his Master’s in Special Education and an Administrative degree. Ostby started working for Columbia Academy in 2011 as the Assistant Principal.

“Mr. Ostby was a very good person who cared for the students,” Kamya Crutchfield (11) said. “He made sure that we [were] okay school-wise and personally. He was there for me throughout when times [were] tough for me in middle school. I really appreciate him for that.”

Ostby also led as Assistant Principal of the A.C.H.I.E.V.E. Program, a college and career readiness program aimed at young scholars with a focus on potential first-generation university students. He was the K-8 and secondary Summer School Principal and was heavily involved in the ENCORE program. 

“Mr. Ostby was an amazing mentor, friend and colleague to me and so many others,” Ms. Leslee Sherk, a longtime administrator for Columbia Academy, said. “He loved his job and the students he worked with over the years and we will all miss him terribly.  I hope he had some idea of the positive impact he had on CHPS students and staff.”

At only 45, Ostby passed from a cardiac arrest on January 22. Known for being a man of optimism and serving as a light in the darkness, former students, colleagues, family and friends have all been mourning his untimely death. That it came in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic makes his sudden passing sting even more for those that hoped to see him in-person this spring when students returned to the building. 

Ms. Karen Crotty grew up in Columbia Heights and graduated from Columbia Heights High School as part of the class of 1982. Crotty started working at North Park Elementary School as the secretary almost right out of high school at 19.

“When I was at [my] very first interview, Karen and I connected that my new (at the time) home was in her childhood neighborhood and her mom was my neighbor,” Ms. Ariane Kokes, a resident of Columbia Heights and the art teacher of North Park, said.  “That connection and welcome, not only to North Park but our community, made us feel so at home in a new neighborhood and our first home. Karen’s light and warmth and ability to find that common connection with anyone she spoke to welcomed us to North Park and across Columbia Heights and I saw her use that incredible gift with so many over the years.”

Interacting with many generations of families for over 35 years, Crotty was an integral piece of North Park to say the least. Her notable graciousness and hospitality has touched the hearts of the thousands of people who have had even the briefest encounters with her.

“Karen was just a kind person in general and always remembered everyone’s name,” El Zeimet (11), a former North Park student, said. “When my mom would enter the school she would always ask about our family [and I]. She was always so patient and so kind, especially as someone who has to work with so many little kids. She was amazing at her job and North Park won’t be the same without her.”

At 57, Crotty passed from a long-term illness. North Park had a drive-by celebration of Crotty’s life and legacy on February 26, and her family is encouraging people to donate to a scholarship fund in her name in lieu of flowers. If you are interested in contributing to CHHS’s Karen Crotty Scholarship, contact scholarship committee coordinator Ms. Janelle Gillis at [email protected]. Those who have been affected by her benevolence will honor her for years to come. 

Many people, now more than ever, are battling with mental health struggles every day, and even more now that Columbia Heights Public Schools has tragically lost two of its best. Being secluded from classmates, teachers and familiar faces in the midst of the grieving process is not an easy thing for anybody to endure. It is important to remember during these times that you are not alone and there are people here to help you if need be. Below this story are the names and email addresses for social workers at every school in the district. Do not hesitate to reach out for support.

As we remember both Ms. Karen Crotty’s and Mr. Rick Ostby’s wonderful lives, and examine the impression that they made on many, it is crucial to hold onto loved ones and to have thoughtfulness when connecting with others.

Columbia Heights High School

Ms. Jeannie Swanson ([email protected])

Columbia Academy

Ms. Vanessa Lotito-Meier ([email protected])

North Park Elementary

Ms. Kimberly Wicker ([email protected])

Valley View Elementary

Ms. Carlie Ross ([email protected])

Highland Elementary

Ms. Nicole Herje ([email protected]

This story was originally published on The Heights Herald on March 25, 2021.