Gail Copeland memorial

Joaquin Miller Elementary School principal Judy Hession, left, speaks as a plaque honoring former principal Gail Copeland is unveiled by her daughter Chris Copeland, right, and her widower Doug Copeland at the Burbank school on Friday, Dec. 13, 2013. Gail Copeland died earlier this year. (Raul Roa / Staff Photographer / December 13, 2013)

Joaquin Miller Elementary students gathered in the school's quad Friday morning to see the unveiling of a new plaque bearing the name of Gail Copeland, who served as the school's principal for 19 years.

Current Principal Judy Hession, who worked under Copeland for six years before she retired in 2003, also named its quad, "Copeland Courtyard."

Most of Miller's 700 students also wore purple on Friday, the former principal's favorite color.

The former educator, who was known for putting students first and never wanted to take credit for the school's overall achievement, once oversaw 125 employees and 1,000 students at Miller when it was at its most populated.

Copeland spent more than 42 years working for Burbank Unified, and 28 of those years were spent at Miller.

After voters passed a bond in 1997, Copeland put off retirement to help see through major remodeling and design changes at the school, Hession said, including the courtyard that now bears her name.

After Copeland retired in 2003, she continued to assist the district by serving in interim positions at various schools.

"Gail is so loved and respected, and she meant so much to all of us," Hession said on Friday.

Among Copeland's former colleagues who attended Friday's ceremony was Della Bertrand, who worked as Copeland's secretary at Joaquin Miller until 2000, when Bertrand retired.

"Kids were her first thought — always," she recalled.

Bertrand still kicks herself today for not staying at the school three years longer, if only to spend more time with Copeland.

"I never would have left had I known she was going to stay those three years. I would have stayed until she left," she said. "I could have spent that time with Gail."

Copeland's husband, Doug, and their daughter, Chris, who teaches at Jefferson Elementary, also attended the ceremony on Friday.

"My dad and I are overwhelmed and just so thankful that they made a huge effort to recognize her…it was overwhelming, beautiful and heartfelt," she said. .

Doug Copeland, who married Gail Copeland in February 1963, said the plaque installed in the courtyard on Friday was a fitting place because it's a quiet, peaceful environment.

"It's someplace kids can go to be together and it's not as formal as an auditorium," he said. "I think it really hit the mark."

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Follow Kelly Corrigan on Twitter: @kellymcorrigan.

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