Debbie Kreitzer was many things to WKU and the geography and geology department which she called home.

She was once a student of geography at WKU herself, both as an undergrad and graduate student. She later became a part-time and then full-time professor in the subject.

As an instructor, she was always laughing and always cheerful, her colleagues said. She was a hard worker who always went out of her way to help students. She was an advocate and enthusiastic leader of the Study Abroad program in the department and represented the Ogden College of Science & Engineering on the faculty senate, where she served on the Senate Executive Committee.

But perhaps above all, Kreitzer was a member of a family of friends and colleagues who say she is irreplaceable.

"We see ourselves as a family in the department, we are all colleagues…but we are a family as well," David Keeling, the head of the geography and geology department, said. "Whenever a family member is gone, you miss that person’s contribution to the group, to the family. She's irreplaceable from that standpoint."

Jun Yan, associate professor of geography and geographic information systems, described her as a close neighbor. Kreitzer's office sat right across the hall from his in the Environmental Science and Technology building.

Yan said Kreitzer laughed often and always worked hard, regularly staying in her office late to prepare for class.

"It just came as a shock," Yan said. "I just said goodbye to her Friday."

Kreitzer died Sunday after attending a Kentucky Derby party Saturday where she suffered a sudden heart attack. She was 51.

Mac McKerral, associate professor of news editorial journalism and chair of the SEC, said he was flattened by the news. The SEC met on Sunday and were informed of Kreitzer's passing.

"There was silence," he said. "Nobody spoke. It lasted for a good amount of time until I had to adjourn the meeting."

He spoke highly of her service on the committee.

"She was a great committee member," McKerral said. "She didn't speak often, but when she did she made great contributions. Her seat was noticeably empty."

Keeling knew Kreitzer well. He served as Kreitzer's advisor on her graduate thesis project while she was still a student and taught her in several classes.

He also went on numerous study abroad trips with Kreitzer and geography students around the world to places such as Australia, Africa, Argentina and Europe.

"She was always very excited about traveling and working with students," he said.

Lexington senior Tressa Root said she didn’t know Kreitzer prior to being enrolled in her Geography 110 class this semester. However, Root said it was apparent Kreitzer will leave an indelible impression on many students, including herself.

“I think she will leave a lasting mark here at WKU because of how much you could tell she loved her subject,” Root said.

Kreitzer led several Study Abroad groups since 2002, including taking WKU students to Slovenia in 2008 and 2009. Root said she enjoyed hearing about Kreitzer’s travels in class and her passion for geography.

“She always had interesting stories about her travels,” Root said. “She really loved geography and it was evident.”

Keeling said he will miss all the fun Kreitzer and the other members of the department often had together.

"She was a dear friend inside and outside the office," he said. "Quite a number of us get together outside the office on a regular basis and have a meal together, a few beverages, play cards and have fun. Those are the kinds of memories that we'll miss, not being able to do those things with her anymore."

Celebrating and having fun with her friends and colleagues was what Kreitzer was doing in her last moments. The geography and geology department held a Kentucky Derby party at a faculty member's house on Saturday, something Keeling said had become a bit of a department tradition.

"She was there, full of life and looking forward to doing some teaching over the summer," Keeling said.

Keeling said the department is planning on dedicating a classroom, as well as creating a Study Abroad scholarship in her name, and is currently accepting donations to go toward its creation.

Kreitzer is survived by her husband of 32 years, Tony Kreitzer, two sons, Nate Shaw and Michael Kreitzer, and her daughter Laura Kreitzer.

Kreitzer's funeral will be held Thursday, May 9 at 2 p.m. at the J.C. Kirby & Son Funeral Chapel on Lovers Lane. Visitation hours are from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 8, and from noon till 2 p.m. on Thursday.

While Keeling said other professors will step in for the time being to teach Kreitzer's classes, her spirit and personality can never be replaced.

"It leaves a huge hole in the department; in the family."