Mark Muellejans

Two rural communities struggled yesterday to cope with grief after an elementary school teacher collapsed while reading to his class and died.

Mark Muellejans, 33, collapsed in his rocking chair while teaching his Grade 2 class at North Meadows public school in Strathroy Tuesday.

The Glencoe native was in his fifth year of teaching, and was known in both communities as an upbeat, committed and inspiring teacher.

"He had a great spirit. He never gave up," Muellejans’s mother, Colene, said yesterday.

Muellejans, who had an enlarged heart, was well-known in Glencoe after surviving a fatal form of cancer during his teenage years.

"He was 17 when he was diagnosed and the doctors didn’t think he would make it," said his father, Peter.

"We almost lost him then."

Through complications with lymphoma, Muellejans continued to inspire others, attending his prom in a wheelchair wearing a fedora to cover his bald head.

"He was quite a legend in this community because of his fight and his survival," said Jane Bowley, a physical education teacher at Glencoe District high school, which Muellejans attended. "He had such a great sense of humour. One of the only ways I know how to describe him is ‘carpe diem.’ He’s a hero. He lived his life to the fullest."

Muellejans was devoted to his nine-year-old son. He shared custody of the boy with his wife, from whom he was separated.

He was a Terry Fox Run representative at Ekcoe Central public school.

Muellejans attended Ekcoe Central public school as a child and later taught there.

He spoke about his battle with cancer at the Canadian Cancer Society’s Relay for Life in Glencoe and walked the Survivor’s Walk for the last two years. Last year, he ran the entire 12 hours of the relay.

An athlete, Muellejans also ran marathons, played basketball and volleyball and swam.

His death this week, doctors told his parents, was next to impossible to predict.

"They said that his heart was one-and-a-half times the size of a normal heart and it’s amazing he was able to do all the things he did," Peter said.

Muellejans’s first teaching job, five years ago, was at Ekcoe Central.

Teachers and those he taught were in shock yesterday.

"The impact that he had on the staff and students, it’s impossible to measure," said principal Sue Bandeen. "He was the heart of the community. He was a Glencoe boy through and through."

Muellejans’s classrooms were "animated but disciplined," Bandeen said. "He was a very positive teacher. You walked into his class and he was telling a joke or a story. He just lit up a room."

Muellejans coached sports and volunteered at after-school activities. He became a role model for healthy life choices while on the healthy schools committee at Ekcoe Central, Bandeen said.

This school year would have been Muellejans’s second at North Meadows in Strathroy.

Yesterday, the Thames Valley District school board’s trauma team was at both elementary schools helping people cope. Some teachers took the day off to collect themselves.

Some schools will pause during tomorrow’s Terry Fox run for a moment of silence.

Others will give special tributes to the passionate teacher later this month.

Muellejans’ funeral is scheduled for Saturday at 11 a.m. at Van Heck Funeral Home in Glencoe.