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Spanish Fork • Several years ago, some of J. Merrill Hallam's students joked that they were planning to toilet paper their teacher's home.

Hallam responded in kind, joking that he would pay them each a visit "with a shovel" to dole out justice, keeping the threat cryptic.

Since then, the Spanish Fork Junior High teacher has kept a tongue-in-cheek list with the names of rabble-rousing pupils written on the handle of a shovel kept in his biology classroom.

But one shovel may no longer be enough, he said Wednesday — after the surprise announcement by students, family and fellow educators that Hallam is among the winners of this year's Huntsman Awards for Excellence in Education.

"I got duped into this," Merrill said. "I'm going to have to find a bigger shovel because you're all going on the list."

Each year, the Huntsman family honors seven teachers, three administrators and one school volunteer with an award that includes a $10,000 check from philanthropist and family patriarch Jon Huntsman Sr.

His wife, Karen Huntsman, visited the first two winners Wednesday — Hallam and another Nebo School District educator, Monica Giffing — and will make similar visits throughout the state over the next two weeks, ahead of a May 12 awards ceremony in Salt Lake City.

Karen Huntsman said the nominees seem to get better every year. She said her husband comes from a family of educators and believes strongly in the positive effects of dedicated teachers.

"He's always had a soft spot for educators," she said, "and what they do in the lives of people."

Hallam, who has been involved in nominating other teachers for the award in previous years, said he was caught off guard by Wednesday's announcement.

"I don't feel I'm worthy," Hallam said. "I just don't."

But Spanish Fork Junior High Principal Matt Christensen said the recognition is well-deserved and a long time coming for the 33-year educator.

"He is a fabulous individual," Christensen said. "He is the biggest advocate for kids."

Giffing was present for Hallam's announcement, but did not learn that she too had won the award until an hour later, when Karen Huntsman visited her classroom at Springville High School.

Giffing teaches agricultural sciences and special education, and is also the school's Future Farmers of America adviser.

"I'm just so overwhelmed and honored," Giffing said. "The Huntsman education award is, I think, the elite of the elite. I'm humbled that someone would nominate me."

A teacher of 11 years, Giffing said her profession is challenging, but rewarding.

"I love to see a change in a student," Giffing said. "I believe every student that comes into my classroom has more potential than they believe they do, and I love to show them that."

Springville High School Principal Everett Kelepolo praised Giffing for her range as an educator. He described her as a faculty member who is involved in, and excels at, all areas of education.

"I can't say enough good things about her," Kelepolo said. "She just does a wonderful, wonderful job."

The Huntsman Award winners will include two teachers and an administrator at the elementary, middle school and high school levels, as well as a special education teacher and a school volunteer.

The $10,000 award money comes with the caveat that winners spend it on themselves and not at the school or classroom, a point that Karen Huntsman emphasizes each year.

In early years of the award, she said, one winner gave the check to the school to pay for a new stage. But when Jon Huntsman Sr. found out, Karen Huntsman said, he reimbursed the cost of the stage to ensure the winner would receive the award money.

"My husband just wants it to go to them," Karen Huntsman said.

Twitter: @bjaminwood

Editor's note: The owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune is Paul Huntsman, son of Jon Huntsman Sr.