A retired St. Simons Island real estate agent and his wife, a Glynn County school system teacher and administrator, were among three passengers killed Saturday afternoon when a cross-country Amtrak train derailed in Montana.
Don and Margie Varnadoe were aboard the Empire Builder when it derailed about 4 p.m. near Joplin, a town of about 200 in the high plains just 30 miles from the Canadian border in north-central Montana.
The train that runs from Chicago to Seattle had about 140 passengers and 16 crew members in 10 cars pulled by two locomotives, the AP reported. Eight of the cars left the tracks injuring at least 50 people. Five of them remained hospitalized Sunday in serious condition, the AP said.
Although Liberty County, Montana, Sheriff Nick Erickson declined to release the names of those killed until their next of kin were notified, word spread around St. Simons Sunday morning that Don and Margie Varnadoe had died in the accident.
“I was just shocked,’’ said St. Simons real estate agent Roland Daniel. “Three people are dead, and two of them are Don and Marge Varnadoe.”
“They were grateful, wonderful, honorable people. It’s a shame they’re gone,’’ Daniel said.
Both served the Glynn County School System, Margie Varnadoe as a teacher, principal, personnel director and assistant superintendent, and Don Varnadoe as a school board member for four years.
“We were friends and colleagues,’’ retired school superintendent Howard Mann said.
“She went in and took over our human resources and made some changes’’ with Paul McKenzie, Mann said.
She oversaw and implemented a complete reorganization of the office, Mann said.
They improved the application process that improved teacher recruitment in a way designed to attract the brightest and best educators, Mann said. She worked with Valerie Hepburn, the president of College of Coastal Georgia at the time, to identify good candidates in the teacher education program there.
She implemented good practices that are still in use, Mann said.
“She was sadly missed when she retired, but her impact lives on,’’ he said.
During his single term on the school board between 1998 and 2002, Don Varnadoe was always intent on improving the school system. He worked hard and conscientiously on attendance zones and boundaries that are necessary to keep student populations balanced, Mann said.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better person to work with on ways to help kids,” Mann said. “He made a concerted effort to follow the rules governing school boards. He knew his issues were policy and budget and that’s what he stuck to.”
After Don Varnadoe decided to not seek re-election, Earl Perry won the post and said Varnadoe made the transition easier.
“He brought me a box of paperwork and showed me everything they had done. It was a great help,’’ Perry said.
Don Varnadoe had worked at Sea Island Realty before joining Coldwell Bankers.
Daniel called him “the most solid real estate agent I’ve ever known.”
“He was as kind as they come” and listened more than he talked to learn about the customers’ needs, Daniel said.
Of Margie Varnadoe, Daniel said, “Just the smartest person I’ve ever known.”
A National Transportation Safety Board team was at the scene of derailment Sunday investigating the accident, the AP reported.