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The sixth-grader's father had just passed away and, understandably, he was having trouble concentrating on his schoolwork.

Julie Larsen, principal at Oak Hills Elementary, knew he needed more than just a few kind words. So Larsen sat him down and told him about the death of her own daughter, years ago. She gave him a small, titanium ring and told him to think of it as a reminder.

"Remember the story that I told you," Larsen told the boy, "and that it was hard for me, but I made it, and you can do the very same thing."

It was the kind of moment that epitomizes Larsen's work with kids, say parents and school staffers, who nominated their principal for a prestigious Huntsman Award for Excellence in Education. Larsen is one of 11 across the state to win the $10,000 award this year.

"I'm speechless, and I'm never speechless," said a tearful Larsen, after learning, earlier this week in front of hundreds of cheering students, that she had won the award. She took a few minutes to absorb the news and added, "I love what I do … I just get all the reward I need from being with you guys, from having a great school."

"I'm just an average old principal, really," she said.

From the crowd, a small boy shouted, "No you're not!"

Larsen's compassion, her work to create a nonfiction lending library for the school, equip the school with the latest technologies, and her enthusiasm for helping kids succeed testify to that.

"I've worked in the district for 21 years, and I've never seen anyone like her," said Debbie Smith, a secretary at the school. "She just makes us want to be here."

Over the last couple weeks, Karen Huntsman, wife of Utah industrialist and philanthropist Jon M. Huntsman Sr., has been traveling the state, surprising educators at assemblies and in their classrooms with the honor. The last of the 11 educators learned the good news Wednesday.

Huntsman surprised Riverton High automotive technology teacher Jay Que Hales with the award at an assembly last week. Hales is an educator whose kids consistently win top awards and scholarships at state and national automotive competitions. His classes are packed with students eager to go on to careers in an industry that, unlike many others at the moment, is hiring.

Hales attends seminars on his own time to keep up on the latest developments in the field, and he devotes time after school to helping his students learn how to troubleshoot, diagnose and repair vehicles.

He does all this despite working three jobs.

"A lot of the skills that I try to teach them are good work ethics, being responsible, showing up to work on time," Hales said. "I try to teach a little bit of everything, not just automotive."

One of Hales' former students, Dustin Obert, who now works as a technician at Jerry Seiner South Jordan Buick GMC, said his teacher gave him the "knowledge and know-how to make a lasting career and actually excel in my career."

"He took time out of his own life to do that," said Obert, who contributed to Hales' nomination for the award. He said he can't thank him enough.

Huntsman also surprised David Morrill, a physics teacher at Jordan High, in his classroom last week. Students, parents and teachers nominated Morrill for inspiring students to find meaning in physics. Visitors to Morrill's classroom are more likely to see hands-on labs and activities than lectures and textbook reading.

In lean budget times, Morrill built his physics lab piece by piece, out of often-discarded materials. He felt it was important for students to not just learn about physics, but to experience it.

"Physics is just such a central part of our lives and students … all of these things go on around them and they don't necessarily understand why and how they're related until they start to see these concepts," Morrill said.

And he's done it all while caring for his wife, who has Alzheimer's disease. He even had cameras set up in his home to allow him to monitor his wife periodically from a computer in his classroom, though family members now spend time at Morrill's home during the week while he's teaching.

How does he handle it? "One day at a time," he said.

His efforts are not lost on students. Many of his former students contact him, after they've embarked on careers of their own, to thank him.

"I tell these students that physics will change their lives," Morrill said. "That's one of the things I do enjoy about teaching is I actually do change people's lives — not everybody's, but a few."

Twitter: @lschencker

The rest of the winners

Here are the other eight Huntsman winners, the name of their schools and a quote from the nominating form:

Judy Mahoskey • Sixth-grade teacher, Liberty Elementary School, Murray

"Mrs. Mahoskey has affected my life in so many ways. She has always been there to encourage me, help me, and most importantly she has been an excellent example of a strong and independent woman." — Georgie Jackson, former student

Ann Jenson • Fourth-grade teacher, Upland Terrace Elementary School, Holladay

"From the cereal box and puppet show book reports, to holiday plays and earth ship inventions, from elaborate art projects, to the fabulous Jenson Harmonica Chorus, Ann goes far beyond the required curriculum and inspires music, art and creativity." — Betsy Ivins, parent

Taran K. Chun • Principal, Granite Park Junior High School, Salt Lake City

"He quietly walked into Granite Park Junior High School three years ago. During that time he was able to build on the strengths of the school, stimulate change and improvement, and lead an extremely diverse set of people (staff and students) to charge full speed ahead for one common goal, dreaming of college and beyond!" — Whitney Watchman, counselor

Amy Hall • Math teacher, Hillcrest Junior High, Murray

"Upon walking into her class, you can feel it is a safe, student centered learning environment. Ms. Hall possesses a unique ability to explain complicated concepts to a wide variety of learning styles." — Jennifer Covington, principal

Kevin Poff • Social studies teacher, musical director, student government, Mueller Park Junior High School, Bountiful

"The main reason that I am nominating Kevin is because of his leadership, sacrifice, and care for each student/child that participates in the annual school play. Every student that wants to participate is included and given meaningful parts that fit their talents." — Jeffrey Smith, school community council chair, parent

Jill Porter • Principal, North Sevier High School, Salina

"As a lifelong member of the North Sevier community, she not only knows every student, but is fully aware of each one's family. She is an advocate for each student, handing out in the correct balance, a listening ear and tough love." — Launa Albrecht, teacher

Phyllis Savage • Volunteer, Ogden City School District, Ogden

"This octogenarian amazed us with all her energy, enthusiasm and love of the children. I so admired her positive ability to manage and actively engage 80 kindergartners in music and literacy activities." — Linda Brown, former principal of Dee Elementary School

Mark H. Huntsman Award • Sam Clemmons, learning center teacher, Fremont Elementary School, Sunset

"During recess times, Sam will be found on the playground playing 4 Square with the children, making sure to include other students who are not in his classroom. This not only allows his students the opportunity to mainstream with regular education students, it also helps other students who may find recess to be a difficult time." — Diane Ramsey, principal —

Meet all the winners

See all the Huntsman Award winners at the end of this article.

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