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Hundreds Gather to Mourn Late Principal

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CHAPEL HILL — Family, friends, and students gathered Saturday to say goodbye to a popular Chapel Hill educator.

Alton Cheek, the popular principal ofPhillips Middle School, died unexpectedly Tuesday, apparently of heart failure. He was 57.

More than 800 mourners crowded into a school auditorium Saturday to remember Cheek.

"Alton lived each day to the fullest. He tried to do everything he could do in the time he had," says friend Mark Royster.

"It was really, really sad. Like when we were in the auditorium, there was a huge gasp and everyone was crying," Phillips student Keri Murphy says.

"He used to help me through a lot of things," "When I'd get in fights with my friends, he'd help me solve my problems. He was like my best friend," says student Tanesha Cottman.

Colleagues remember Cheek as a strong advocate for children. He dedicated himself to making sure minority students were not left behind.

"He felt that in some cases students weren't given equal opportunity," says Neil Pederson, superintendent ofChapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. "So, he was a strong advocate of making the most rigorous courses available to all students."

Friends say it is comforting to know that Cheek spent his life doing something he loved -- helping children. But for students who lost both a principal and a friend, it is difficult to say goodbye.

"He was always smiling, and he knew everybody's name. He was just a really nice guy, it's just sad to see him go," says Phillips student Amanda Grace.

Cheek was the principal at Phillips Middle School for eight years. Before that, he worked in the Orange County Schools for 24 years.