David Collins, the longtime Gallatin public school teacher whose love of nature helped inspire countless students and adults throughout the community for more than four decades, died Monday, May 3. He was 69.

Collins began his teaching career in 1973 at Vena Stuart Elementary School where he spent 29 years before becoming a first-grade teacher at Union Elementary S.T.E.A.M. and Demonstration School in 2002.

“His impact on our school affected the 450 other students who weren’t in his class as well as the staff,” Union Principal Lance Taylor said Monday about Collins. “David was a very rare gem of a person in all walks of life. He was definitely somebody who fulfilled his calling and made a difference in so many people’s lives.”

During his time at Union, Collins oversaw the school’s vegetable garden, greenhouse and chicken coop while also helping to establish an on-campus rain garden as well as a dedicated butterfly garden at Triple Creek Park.

His involvement was so influential that the Sumner County Board of Education named the agriculture facilities at the school after him in 2018.

Danny Sullivan, who served as principal at Union from 2008 until 2017, said it was not uncommon for Collins and his class to spend several hours outside each day either reading or reviewing coursework or working in the garden and greenhouse.

“David was always bringing the kids outside and making nature the classroom,” Sullivan said. “He could also find the passion and the ability that a child had whether it was through art or just the love of something specific. He would then utilize that to motivate them to learn.”

Collins was also involved with the harvesting and release of more than 10,000 butterflies through the school’s annual monarch butterfly launch in addition to helping secure more than $100,000 in grant funding for the school throughout the years.

Collins’ influence stretched beyond the classroom

Even after spending decades in education, Sullivan said Collins “never lost that passion” for teaching others.

“David was one of those teachers that everybody wanted to have,” Sullivan added. “If you got lucky enough to be in his classroom you felt blessed because you knew you were going to get a great education.”

In 2018, National Life Group named Collins the LifeChanger of the Year Spirit Award winner out of 825 nominations from across the country. The recognition is given each year to the K-12 educator or school employee whose community demonstrates the most support for their nomination.

His impact on countless lives during his more than 40-year teaching career could be seen in the nearly 500 comments that were posted at the time on his nomination profile online from former students, their parents, colleagues and other members of the community.

“Growing up with a single mom, he was the positive male role model that I didn’t have,” wrote Suzette Taylor who had been in Collins’ kindergarten class more than 30 years earlier. “Thirty-two years later, Mr. Collins was my son’s first grade teacher. My son absolutely adored him as well! He’s spent decades changing the lives of children. He’s more than a teacher, he’s an incredible person that truly loves his students.”

The impact Collins had in the community could also be felt beyond his teaching career.

In addition to his time in the classroom, Collins also donated vegetables and more than 5,000 eggs to help feed hungry families through Gallatin C.A.R.E.S. and the Sumner County Food Bank. He was also an active member of his church who helped organize camps and went on mission trips regularly.

“Everything we have in our food pantry from the traditional sources is nonperishable,” Gallatin C.A.R.E.S. Executive Director Blake Parks said about the importance of the donations. “So, when we can add things like dairy products, meat or any of those types of things, it’s like solid gold for the folks we’re giving it to. We’re not only able to give people something to eat, but we’re truly helping to improve their health as we go.”

In early 2018, Collins retired from teaching full-time not long after being diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer the previous year.

In the time that followed, Taylor said Collins continued to remain involved at Union despite his declining health. Prior to the pandemic, he taught agriculture at the school four days a week for about an hour each day in addition to spending time working in the on-campus garden.

“David reminisced with me two weeks ago for about two and a half hours,” Taylor recalled about the conversation. “He wanted to make sure that he had been a blessing to everyone and had never made anybody feel less than.

“He even mentioned kids by name that had gone far and kids that he was worried about from all the way back in the 1970’s. He hadn’t seen them in 40-plus years, but he still cared. That’s just who he was.”

The funeral service for David Collins will be held at the Hartsville Pike Church of Christ on Friday, May 7 at 1 p.m. Visitation will be held at the church on Wednesday and Thursday from 2 p.m. until 7 p.m. and on Friday from 11 a.m. until the start of service.

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