Jeff Schmela said good-bye to his best friend this week, much too soon.
“We taught together for eight years and the last five, our classrooms were next door to each other,” Schmela said Tuesday, several hours after attending the funeral of fellow Metea Valley High School science teacher Michael Riley Wegrzyn.
Wegrzyn, 32, died Friday at Central DuPage Hospital from a stroke.
He is survived by his wife, Kate (Thayer) Wegrzyn and twin 1-year-old daughters Elle Maura and Aubren Anne, along with his father Richard, mother Joan, brother David, and sister Sarah.
“I actually talked him into going to Metea,” Schmela said of the two colleagues’ move in 2009 from District 204 sister school Neuqua Valley, where both taught together.
“We rode our bikes to school together. We worked on each other’s house.
“I’m 10 years older, but we had a lot of common interests. He was the spotter and I was the P.A. announcer for football games.”
Wegrzyn, who lived in Winfield, grew up in Wheaton. He graduated from St. Francis High School and then earned his biology degree in 2004 from the University of Illinois. He began teaching out of college at Neuqua Valley, hired by department chair Paul Vandersteen.
“He had student taught at Hinsdale Central and I hired him to his first teaching job, basically, as a young graduate,” Vandersteen recalled.
“He was an awesome young man and one of the most enthusiastic teachers I’ve ever had. He came to school every day with great optimism.”
That optimism was evident at Metea Valley, where the young teacher managed to have a big impact on many of the students he taught and the players he coached on the girls lacrosse team that was a co-op of players drawn from Waubonsie Valley and Metea Valley high schools and known as The Tribe.
“He started coaching it at Neuqua because he wanted to coach something,” Schmela said. “He always had a great field presence and was a pretty good athlete. He was a catcher in baseball in high school and part of a battery that threw a no-hitter. He also played football.”
Wegrzyn and Schmela both taught AP Environmental Science where they continued one of their favorites from Neuqua Valley, taking students to the North Woods for three days.
“We got to Treehaven, a University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point outdoor center where the kids are immersed in the outdoors,” Schmela said. “You can’t replicate that in a classroom.
“They get to experience an ecosystem up there that doesn’t exist in Illinois. It’s one of those classes that can literally change your life. Being Green is important but you don’t understand what it means … there they get to see real world applications.”
Applications a young teacher loved using to open his students’ eyes.Tags: Metea Valley