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Goodbye Lipstick Sue – the much-loved teaching assistant who touched hundreds of lives in Abbey Hey, Gorton and Openshaw – Manchester Evening News

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Tributes have been paid to a hugely popular teaching assistant after she lost her battle with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) aged just 66.

Sue Whitehead was the beating heart of Abbey Hey primary school in Gorton for more than 30 years.

She joined from the former Varna Street school in Openshaw as a TA and later took on more responsibility as a safeguarding lead, winning national and local awards for her dedication.

But in reality, Sue’s role at the school, and indeed the wider community, could not be defined by a job title.

A glamorous woman who visited her favourite salon, Dean’s, every week, and often went by the nickname ‘Lipstick Sue’, she was the member of staff that any child or parent could talk to, with a warm personality, wicked sense of humour and knack for solving problems.

As one colleague put it: “You won’t find a single person who’s come through the doors of Abbey Hey who doesn’t know Sue and what a fantastic job she’s done over the years.”

Born and bred in Abbey Hey, one of the most deprived parts of Manchester and the country, Sue was fiercely committed to helping families in any way possible.

The M.E.N reported in 2018 how she was among staff at Abbey Hey buying gas and electric, as well and coats and shoes, for desperate parents.

Sue was also instrumental in setting up the school’s own year-round food bank, which, true to her legacy, will this week be providing 32 families in need with food parcels and Christmas presents.

Sue’s death in the early hours of last Saturday morning has left the school, her husband Dave, sons Matthew and Gary, and two grandchildren, utterly devastated.

When headteacher Paul Graham shared the news on the school’s Facebook page he was inundated with hundreds of messages of condolence from parents past and present.

Melissa Murphy, for example, wrote: “Aww no I can’t believe it. Thinking of all her family. Rip you beautiful woman. I’ll never forget what you did for me and my kids. “

Wayne Fletcher added: “Such a wonderful lady. Both my boys knew her as did I. It was a pleasure to have known her. Fly high with the Angels lovely xx” 

And Gillian Moore added: “So sad she looked after both my boys at school they are now adults but still remember her thoughts are with all her family.”

‘One of a kind’

Such heartfelt tributes point to a woman whose influence was felt far beyond the classroom.

Friend and colleague Sue Carroll  told how she would frequently befriend people who had been strangers only minutes earlier.

“I’ve been with her on shopping trips where she’s got to know people and they would start to confide in her, and she would care about them as well,” said Sue.

“They would become regular friends, because she showed concern and she had this aura about her where people felt though they could open up to her – whether that was in a jewellery shop or a make-up counter. 

“She was popular, people just wanted to know her.

“She was one of a kind.”

That magnetism was something that often proved invaluable in Sue’s professional life.

“On the food bank, Sue was always somebody people would ring because they trusted her so much, they felt comfortable with sharing that they needed to use the food bank with her,” said Vice-principal Catherine Horton-Hale.

Sue was the one who always remembered to ring home if staff had a concern about a child, said colleagues.

In fact, she had such intuitive people skills she would even run counselling workshops to help families with relationships.

Headteacher Mr Graham joined Abbey Hey seven years ago and says he quickly fell under Sue’s spell the same as everyone else.

“I came here as assistant principal and I then became headteacher… but I still had to run things by Sue!” he said.

“She would say ‘what are you doing now Paul? What are you trying to change?’ 

“I’d talk to her and she’d say ‘well have you tried this?’ or ‘I think you should do it that way’. 

“She was quite a character.”

“I remember saying at her retirement speech, things are run ‘the Sue way'”, Mr Graham added.

“Well it’s still the ‘Sue way’ now. 

“I think she’s had that much of an impact. 

“Even now, you tend to think of her every day. 

“She had a massive influence on the leadership of the school and the direction of the school 

“She was a big part of moving the school out of special measures and into ‘Good’ and keeping it at ‘Good’. 

“Her expectations were phenomenal, she had high standards that were hard to keep up with to be honest.”

‘She was so courageous and so brave’

Although staff at Abbey Hey feel they are now ‘missing a piece of the jigsaw’ without Sue, they are glad she is no longer suffering the effects of an especially cruel illness.

Having twice beaten breast cancer, Sue was then diagnosed with one of the most aggressive forms of Motor Neurone Disease – a rare degenerative condition that affects only two people in every 100,000 in the UK each year.

It occurs when specialist nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord stop working properly, and leads to problems with muscle activity including walking, gripping, speaking and breathing.

There is no cure and life expectancy can vary from a few years to decades.

Remarkably, Sue managed to come back to work full-time after her diagnosis.

Such was her dedication to Abbey Hey, she continued for a further eighteen months, even when was struggling to talk, hold a pencil, and eventually required a frame to walk.

“Her role changed and she was happy to do things she hadn’t done previously,” said colleague Tracey Short.

“She was still doing her job.

“Nothing changed up there.”

Vice-Principal Mrs Horton-Hale added: “We were totally in awe of her she was so courageous and so brave.”

The school is now planning to raise funds for the MND Association charity and come up with a way to permanently remember Sue at the school. 

Friends, parents and colleagues are being asked for ideas.

When she is laid to rest, her family have asked that the coffin drive past Abbey Hey primary school one last time.

Colleague Emma Westerman said: “I think one of the Year 6 children summed it up – they found out [Sue had died] over the weekend and he said ‘I’m really sad about Mrs Whitehead, she was my friend.’ 

“That’s how he saw her.”

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