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Sandy • Although she'd just received a Huntsman Award for Excellence in Education on Friday, Altara Elementary teacher Joani Richardson said it was hard to see herself as one of the state's elite educators.

"That is for really great people," Richardson said. "And I'm just an ordinary teacher."

But Richardson is far from ordinary, according to Altara Principal Nicole Svee Magann. She described Richardson as an "immovable force" who refuses to give up on her students.

"They can come in not knowing their letters and they're going to come out reading," Svee Magann said. "I've never seen data like that."

A 42-year classroom veteran, Richardson has spent her entire teaching career working with first-graders. The most important part of her job, she said, is helping young children develop a passion for literacy.

"I have failed if you don't love to read when you get out of my classroom," she said.

Richardson was the last of this year's award winners to be announced, a process that involves surprise classroom visits throughout the state by Karen Huntsman, wife of wealthy industrialist Jon Huntsman Sr.

A total of 13 educators were honored this year, up from the traditional 11 winners in honor of the awards' 25th anniversary, spokeswoman Jodi Russell said.

At the elementary school level, the winners included Richardson; Horace Mann Elementary teacher Shawn Hafey-Francke; and J.R. Smith Elementary Principal Ryan Brown.

Junior high winners were Rocky Mountain Junior High Principal Nicole Meibos; Spanish Fork Junior High teacher J. Merrill Hallam; and Mueller Park Junior High teacher James Haws.

Manti High School Principal George Henrie is this year's high school administrator honoree, joined at that level by West Jordan High School teacher Kelly DeHaan, Springville High School teacher Monica Giffing, Panguitch High School teacher Ryan Houston and Clearfield High School teacher Susan Sommerkorn.

Barbara Hegland, an educator at the Hartvigsen School, is this year's special-education winner, while Michael McFarland was honored for his volunteer work at Uintah Elementary in Salt Lake City.

"I hate to see it coming to an end," Karen Huntsman said of Friday's final announcement. "It gives me an empty feeling because I love so much going into the classrooms."

The 2017 winners are to be honored at a ceremony May 12 in Salt Lake City. The award includes a $10,000 check from Huntsman Sr., with instructions that winners spend the money on themselves and not on their schools or classrooms.

Hegland, the special-education winner, said she cried after learning she had won the award Thursday.

"It was a shock," she said.

A 30-year teacher, Hegland said education — and particularly special education — can be challenging, but it's worth it to work with Utah students.

"Each one of these children have a special smile and just a special heart," he said.

Richardson's award comes after a year that included a cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy treatments, challenges that Karen Huntsman acknowledged in her announcement Friday.

"Sometimes when we have hard things happen, we have to keep going," Karen Huntsman told the students at Altara Elementary, home of the "Kittyhawks." "We have to keep going forward and making a difference, and this good woman is the best example of this that I know."

Richardson declined to comment on her health, saying she prefers to be defined by her life as an educator. But she also described herself as a runner who has completed 25 marathons and roughly 25 half-marathons, including a race last Saturday.

"I'm going to be 65 in July," she said, "so I'm mostly a fast walker."

She had not yet made plans for her prize money, but said she would likely use it to travel. Her daughter lives in North Carolina and Richardson said that now that her "journey" with cancer is done, it will be a treat to play with her grandchildren.

"I will use it carefully," she said. "I'm not a rash spender."

Twitter: @bjaminwood

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