Rochelle Munger, teacher, musician, athlete and islander, died July 27, 2018, after a long battle with cancer. She was 54.
Many in the community knew Rochelle for her longtime day jobs as the popular physical education teacher at Chautauqua and a coach at McMurray, where she taught her students about the importance of moving their bodies, being healthy and good sportsmanship. Others knew her as a renowned five-string banjo player, a woman with a love of bluegrass music who played outside the school doors to greet students, but who was also a key member of several bands. Still others knew her best from the softball field, where she was so talented she was once recruited to pitch for a men’s team — and often played in multiple leagues, frequently earning the MVP award. Rochelle, who grew up on Vashon, was diagnosed with soft-tissue sarcoma, a rare cancer in adults, eight years ago. Friends and family say that despite the difficulties of the illness, she was relentlessly positive, infusing fun and music into her days and the days of those around her.
“She touched so many people and was such an inspiration, the way she conducted herself with courage and grace,” said fellow teacher and good friend Carrie Hatfield. “She was … a role model about perseverance and positive thinking and accepting the things you cannot change.”
Rochelle was born July 5, 1964, in Cincinnati, Ohio, and came to the island as a toddler with her family: parents Sharon and Barney Munger and younger brother Joshua. As a child, Rochelle was extremely good in art classes, but her passion was sports. Sharon Munger described her daughter as a “sport-aholic,” a Mariners’ ballgirl at the former Kingdome and a teen who participated in every sport she could: soccer, basketball, softball and track. In her senior year in 1982, she was named the school’s best female athlete.
After graduation, she attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, for about two years, family members say, but she missed the Pacific Northwest and returned home, first attending Highline Community College, then moving on to Central Washington University, where she graduated in 1990 with a degree in physical education.
In the 1990s, Rochelle Munger taught for a short time on Vashon, but also in Hoquiam and Tacoma. During those years, she married Rick Wolf; the couple later divorced.
In 2000, she returned to working on Vashon, teaching physical education at Chautauqua and coaching basketball and volleyball at McMurray for several years. Her classes were not about competition and winning, like those of the old-school PE days, but were just the opposite, Hatfield said.
“She was all about kids feeling safe and enjoying being there and getting healthy,” she said.
Just two years ago, Rochelle moved to McMurray to teach there, but illness sidelined her after one semester. The school filled her position with two men — a fact that Rochelle found humor in.
“Rochelle liked to say they had to hire two men to replace her,” Hatfield said.
Former Chautauqua principal Jody Metzger noted that Rochelle was far more than a gym teacher.
“Rochelle was the heartbeat of the school,” she said.
When Chautauqua began an effort to promote and celebrate positive behaviors, Metzger said Rochelle was a powerful force in that effort. Apart from carrying those messages forward in her own classes, she met weekly with the other specialists in the building to develop ways to encourage the children to be more empathetic and helpful. Like Hatfield, Metzger said adults and children learned from Rochelle, including during her illness.
“Rochelle taught us all about strength, courage and resiliency. She was not her diagnosis. Rochelle lived in hope and love,” she said.
At Chautauqua, she implemented special events, such as the egg drop and Turkey Trot and a bicycle safety course. Rebecca Davies, a friend of Rochelle’s and a former physical therapist at the school, recalls Rochelle’s efforts with children with special needs and her dedication to fully involving them, including helping one child who could not pedal to ride a bike. With the child wrapped in two belts extending to each side, Davies and Rochelle grabbed hold and ran, with the child suspended safely between them, for the first time experiencing riding a bike. That kind of brainstorming for students was common, Davies said.
“I do not think there is any kid who knew her who did not love her and know she had their backs,” she added.
Mornings at Chautauqua often found Rochelle outside welcoming children. Even when she was on medical leave, she would sometimes drive to the school and greet them — and for a long period of time, she had her banjo with her with her at the front door.
Andy James, a former music teacher at the school, started the morning banjo tradition when he was learning how to play the instrument, a process he said she supported with enthusiasm, even though her skills far exceeded his.
James said that the hardest part of playing as part of a duo with Rochelle was that she would often stop playing to check in with students who might need a friendly word — and it would be his job to keep the music going. This was a common occurrence, he said, as she was connected to many people on the island, and wanted to know what was happening in their lives, to support them and cheer for them.
Rochelle’s musical abilities extended far beyond the school doors, as she played in several island bands: Riverbend, Rock Island Experiment, Bob’s Your Uncle and Highway 16, among others. She and her partner Cliff Simpson played every day together, family members say, and frequently traveled to bluegrass festivals. Her father is a banjo player as well, and the two enjoyed playing together, too — even over the phone when one learned a new song and wanted to share it with the other.
Barney Munger said Rochelle had an outstanding sense of timing and could learn music just by hearing it. She did not become serious about the banjo until she was an adult, several friends and family said, and grew more interested after joining the band Bob’s Your Uncle, made up mostly of teachers.
“All of a sudden, there she was performing,” Barney Munger said.
He added that when she was interested in something, she was all in. That was true of softball as well. Dave Hoffmann knew Rochelle from their childhood growing up on Vashon, saying they “played a lot of ball together” over the years, as kids and adults, including on a team in Kent and in Hoffmann’s Heroes on Vashon, which he sponsors. With her help, he said, the team placed first in its league each year for all of its seven-year history. He credited Rochelle with being a great motivator to any team — and the force behind a special Halloween tournament, where all the players had to run backward and use a large, Chicago-style softball. The tournament will take place in her honor this year.
Less well known on the island, her brother Josh Munger said, is that Rochelle was a great collector — of heart-shaped rocks, agates and shells, even elephants, and could find treasures when others could not.
“She would walk the beach, and all of a sudden she would be holding beach glass in her hand,” he said.
She was also a beloved aunt. Josh Munger and his wife are raising nine children, and Rochelle often helped with sending them to camp and signing them up for sports. His children, he said, loved Rochelle very much.
When Rochelle was at the end of her life, Josh said that one of her friends commented to him that she really knew how to have fun, even when times were hard. He emphasized that this had always been true.
“She knew how to make the most of the day,” he said.
A scholarship has been set up in Rochelle Munger’s name, and donations are welcome. Checks should be made out to Rochelle Munger, with “scholarship fund” written in the memo line. Donations can be sent to PSCCU, P.O. Box 628, Vashon, WA 98070.
Celebrations of Rochelle Munger’s life will be announced at a later date.