Delores "Dee" Swanson's memorial service was attended by dozens of former students.

Swanson was a no-nonsense math and literacy teacher whose kindness was remembered by many decades after their final school bell rang. Swanson was also known as Sister Arnelda when she was a nun for the School Sisters of Notre Dame. She died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer on Feb. 9. Swanson was 87.

"She had this loud, robust laugh. You just knew when she was in the room because she would laugh," said Dan Schuster, who was one of Swanson's fifth-grade students and later became a close friend. "There was something in her that she knew that she could get the best out of people."

Schuster's story is similar to that of many other people Swanson knew. After finishing school, he gradually lost touch with her but reconnected many years later when he reached out to thank her for her influence. As a teacher she was tough, but fair.

Swanson taught at several grade schools across the state as part of School Sisters of Notre Dame. Her longest tenure was at Sacred Heart in St. Paul. She left the order after many years and got involved with prison ministry, something she had long wanted to do.

She taught math and literacy at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater for more than 20 years.

"She had a heart for people," said Schuster. "She had a smile that could melt your heart. There was an innate kindness about her, you never wanted to disappoint her because she was so kind."

In one conversation, Schuster asked her if she ever had any disciplinary issues when she worked at the prison. She said no.

"She would say, 'We don't talk that way in this room,' and it was something about her, you wanted to listen to her and make her proud," he said.

Swanson lived life to the fullest, achieving many of her goals, including teaching in a prison and visiting Alaska.

Tom Buckley first met Swanson when he was young. As a nun, she became close with his family, frequently babysitting him and his brothers, even after she left the order.

"After my dad passed away in 1988, she was always there to support my mother, who died in 2008," he said. "She was just one of those people you could rely on."

Swanson had a "contagious" optimism, even though her mother died in childbirth, Buckley said. Later in life she enjoyed playing cards with friends at the Parkway Cooperative of Burnsville, where she lived until she went into hospice.

As her health started to decline, many of the people she helped throughout her life came to visit, make meals and help with cleaning.

"She would really listen to us," Buckley said. "She was surrogate parent for us in many ways."