Cathy J. Runnels, a Folsom Cordova school district administrator who was a vocal advocate for cancer screenings and treatment, died Feb. 20 of breast cancer, her family said. She was 58.
Mrs. Runnels was assistant superintendent of human resources for the Folsom Cordova Unified School District. She oversaw labor negotiations and guided the district through layoffs and sensitive personnel issues "with that kind of finesse that shows you value your employees even though they're going through difficult times," Superintendent Debbie Bettencourt said.
Although most assistant superintendents are educators, Mrs. Runnels climbed the school district ranks as a classified employee. She joined Folsom Cordova after working for Black Oak Mine Unified School District in El Dorado County, where she started as a part-time teacher's aide and went on to be head of human relations.
She advanced her career with the same work ethic and determination that led her to take an early job climbing telephone poles and repairing lines before starting a family.
"She had no fear," said her daughter Tara Koelzer. "Whatever it was, she would just tackle a project and prover herself and her worth."
Mrs. Runnels brought the same drive to her fight against breast cancer, which began with her diagnosis 11 years ago, her family said. After chemotherapy and radiation sent the disease into remission, she launched a campaign to educate and encourage women to get frequent exams.
She gave presentations on breast exams in her teenage daughter's classrooms and distributed placards to hang in showers with instructions on how to do a self-exam. She participated in several clinical trials at UC Davis Medical Center to find ways to improve early detection and treatment of breast cancer.
"I have a daughter, a sister and lots of female friends," she told The Bee in 2002. "Anything to help them would be a good thing."
Born in 1954 and raised in San Bernardino, Cathy Jo Mead married Steve Runnels and moved with her husband, who owned a construction business, to Pilot Hill. They raised two children and spent summer weekends on a houseboat in the Sacramento River Delta, where she taught her son to fish.
Mrs. Runnels joined the Folsom Cordova school district in 2006 and was director of classified employees before being named assistant superintendent last July.
The Association of California School Administrators for Region 3, comprising Sacramento and Yolo counties, recently announced that she would receive the administrator of the year award this spring.
Family members and co-workers recalled her warm personality, positive outlook and disarming smile that put people at ease.
"So many people are telling me that she helped them with getting jobs or changing jobs or moving in the district," said her daughter, a teacher at Folsom Middle School. "They really appreciate that she took time out to help them in their own life journeys."