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An educator’s gift: Appreciating the ordinary in the extraordinary

Kim McLaren brushes her husbformer IMSA Principal Eric McLaren's hair after he got out bed their home Sugar Grove Wednesday

Kim McLaren brushes her husband and former IMSA Principal Eric McLaren's hair after he got out of bed at their home in Sugar Grove on Wednesday, September 26, 2012. McLaren was diagnosed with ALS in 2010 and has been battling the disease ever since. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 1, 2012 6:08AM

Ever since I read about Lou Gehrig’s battle with ALS years ago, I’ve been fascinated — I’m not sure if that’s even the right word — with this cruel and fatal disease.

Battle might not be the right word, either. It’s a noun that conjures up a fighting chance against the enemy. But there is no cure, no medicine, no way to ward off this monster that causes motor neurons to die, thus preventing the brain from controlling any and all muscle movement.

Even worse, the brain remains sharp while the body slowly freezes up. What a horrible, horrible disease, made even more despicable when it strikes down such a handsome, athletic and gifted person in the prime of life.

Someone like Lou Gehrig. Someone like Dr. Eric McLaren.

As I prepared to meet the long-time principal of the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora (see today’s Storyteller), I was probably as uneasy as I’ve ever been about an interview in my three decades as a journalist. It wasn’t just the fact the 48-year-old husband, father and beloved educator would communicate by punching out words on a computer with his toes.

It was the difficulty of seeing this man — loved by so many for his intelligence, compassion and leadership skills — in such despair.

Let me tell you how wrong I was.

I was immediately set at ease by his wife Kim and their three kids — a trio of bright young sons who obviously learned well the lessons of their father. Polite, intelligent and mature beyond their years — they’ve hosted their own toy drives for most of their lives — they somehow managed to turn the extraordinary into the ordinary.

That same strength, no coincidence here, radiates from their mother, which could be a story in itself. Only she is an extremely private person, as is her husband. The only reason they agreed to this interview was their belief that this awful journey with ALS could help others in the quest to end this killer disease.

As for the despair I dreaded: When I first walked into the living room — where Eric McLaren lies in a hospital bed, attached to tubes — all I saw was his magnificent smile. The fact he flashed that grin so frequently is a testament to the grace and courage by which he is living with ALS.

McLaren turned over his title as IMSA principal in July but still maintains the title of vice president for academic programs at IMSA, despite the fact he needs round-the- clock care and machines to help him eat and breath. He puts in about four hours a day working, Kim told me, by using a feet-directed computer and a mind that is constantly in motion.

We talked a lot about his love for IMSA in those few hours I spent in the McLaren home. Eric wants to make sure people understand how important science will be in the search for a cure. He also wanted to thank the many people who have stepped up to help his family.

If we want to talk about the word battle, his legion of supporters are ready to do whatever it takes. They are looking at long-term goals, like raising money and awareness for ALS research; as well as funding for the boys’ college educations. There are also short-term hurdles that must be tackled. Blue Cross Blue Shield is shutting off his home health care on Oct. 9, and unless the company approves reauthorization, Eric McLaren will go to a nursing home.

“We are not going to let that happen,” says Stephanie Marshall, founding president of IMSA who has worked with Eric since the school opened its doors a quarter century ago. “He’s not moving ... and we’re not going away.”

You’ll see that same sense of resolve today when supporters host a Lap the Lake benefit at Blackberry Farm in Aurora from 3 to 7 p.m. I encourage you to attend, not only because the money raised will go toward ALS research (which also helps other brain-related monsters like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and MS), but because this man represents everything community is all about. As he tells his kids, both at home and school, Don’t just be good. Be good for something.

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