Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Friends, colleagues and former students of Axel Schmaing gathered at Havre High School on Sunday to honor the educator, who died unexpectedly Wednesday at age 60.
Several hundred people attended the memorial service, which was held in the building where Schmaing taught English and literature for 35 years.
Colleagues praised his passion for teaching, parents detailed the profound effect he had on their children's lives, and his students thanked him for believing in them. Laughter and tears flowed freely as speakers recalled Schmaing's pseudo gruffness and dry sense of humor and expressed a sense of deep loss at his death.
"It's hard to imagine what this school system would be like without him," Havre Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller said during the memorial service. Miller, who at various times was Schmaing's student, colleague and boss, described Schmaing as "quiet, unassuming and rock solid."
Schmaing "teased kids and coaxed them into learning," Miller said.
Schmaing taught at Havre High until last year, when he retired to accept a teaching job in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and to travel with Sue McCunn. The childhood sweethearts were married in Billings following his retirement.
The couple visited Havre on Feb. 1 and last Monday, then drove to Billings on Tuesday, said Schmaing's friend, state Rep. John Musgrove. As the pair were readying to leave Wednesday for the return trip to Abu Dhabi, Schmaing had what appeared to be a heart attack and was taken to a hospital, where he died, Musgrove said.
Musgrove, a former Havre High English teacher, described Schmaing at Sunday's service as "a man of huge intellect" with an "insatiable quest for knowledge."
Musgrove said Schmaing was involved with students beyond the classroom, attending sporting events, choir and band concerts, and coaching the speech and debate team.
"He went to those things, not necessarily because he enjoyed them - and he did enjoy them - but because they were his students, and he knew those students would be in his classroom the next day," Musgrove said.
Schmaing understood that "students know you care about them when you take the time to be around them," Miller said.
Montana State University-Northern assistant professor Suzanne Tilleman, a student of Schmaing, recalled how he demanded that students think critically and drove them not just to read but to understand what they read.
"You had to think in his class," she said, adding that students were inspired by the way he treated other people.
"He respected everybody," Tilleman said. "He treated high school students with respect at a time when they desperately needed it."
Others described Schmaing's strong sense of social justice.
"He did what he thought was right, whether it was popular or not," said Havre High science teacher Rich Davey.
"He always did what was right for the kids, no matter if it was inconvenient for the teachers."
Musgrove said Schmaing lived his personal and professional lives with a strong code of ethics.
"He was a man of principle and integrity," Musgrove said. "He was the most ethical man I ever met."
Marylee Russell said her son, U.S. Army Lt. John Russell, has used Schmaing's teachings to cope with the despair of war. Lt. Russell has been working 12-hour shifts seven days a week since arriving in Iraq in July. When he learned of Schmaing's death, he sent his mother an e-mail saying he was inspired by Schmaing to do the right thing under difficult circumstances.
"(Schmaing) said it was possible to be a good man any place at any time in any situation," Marylee Russell said. "My son lives that."
Former Schmaing student Jason Holden said Schmaing drove him to succeed when others did not.
"He was one of the few that believed in me," Holden said. " I looked at him as the grandfather I never had."
One by one, those who knew Schmaing told of how their lives were touched in ways small and large by the man known for his small stature and massive heart, his dry witticisms and penchant for smoking.
Davey recalled how he was so put off by Schmaing's false gruffness that it took him several years to get to know him.
Hill County Commissioner Pat Conway, a former Havre High principal, told of how Schmaing rebuked him for swearing while he was struggling to change a flat tire on his truck.
"He said 'Take it easy, big boy. Just keep jacking,'" Conway said.
Jerry Veis told of how Schmaing inspired his daughter, Mikyla, to read six Kurt Vonnegut novels over Christmas break.
Musgrove recalled a time he told Schmaing that he needed to quit smoking. Schmaing in turn told Musgrove he needed to quit eating because his "clothes weren't fitting so well."
One colleague spoke of Schmaing's "spirit of rebellion," which made him popular with students.
The memorial service included a slide show of photographs and a tribute by two groups of high school students who performed songs.
Performing "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd and "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin were Dane MacRae and Chris Peterson. Later, Kirstin Russell, Nikole Waite, Catlin Anderson, Kaitlin Bleak, Kim Bryson and Thora Christopherson sang "Angel" by Sarah McLachlan.
The students said they chose the songs specifically for Schmaing.
"It was a touching tribute and good closure for the community," Musgrove said today of the performances.
The memorial ended with a photograph of Schmaing walking barefoot on a beach, walking away from the camera with one arm raised into the air.