By Denise Crosby firstname.lastname@example.org June 8, 2014 5:32PM
Former IMSA Principal Eric McLaren smiles at his wife while posing for a portrait at his home in Sugar Grove in September 2012. McLaren, diagnosed with ALS in 2010, died Friday at age 49
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Updated: June 8, 2014 5:51PM
Former Illinois Math and Science Academy Principal Eric McLaren, whose four-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis turned into a research crusade by IMSA students and faculty, loved ones and national ALS advocates, died Friday at the age of 49.
McLaren, who began at IMSA in 1986 as a residential counselor, led the elite educational institute for 13 years, also serving as vice president of academic programs, until the motor neuron disorder commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease forced him to step down in early 2013.
Of the 5,000 alums, there are probably 3,000 who had Eric has principal, noted IMSA founding President and President Emerita Stephanie Pace Marshall. And wherever in the world “that goodness and genius goes,” McLaren had a major role.
“He had clarity, vision, tenacity, commitment, courage ...” she said. “When you think of Eric, you think purposeful life. I know that sounds trite, but it was true of him.”
Even as ALS gradually robbed McLaren of all muscle control, the dedicated educator, husband and father continued for as long as he could working toward his goal of finding a cure.
“This disease is awful,” he wrote by using a computer system, when interviewed in the fall of 2012 for a Beacon-News story. “I want it wiped from the Earth, along with M.S., Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s.”
McLaren’s loved ones, co-workers and IMSA students joined him in this cause, determined to follow the school’s mission statement “to advance the human condition.”
He always believed the key to eradicating the disease “was not in the medicine,” he said. “The answer is in the science.”
Partnering with him on his mission was Project A.L.S., formed by New York author Jenifer Estess, who raised national awareness before succumbing to the disease in 2004, and her sisters Valerie and Meredith Estess.
Pat Roney, one of several runners who took part in a New York marathon for Project A.L.S. and helped spearhead local fundraisers, describes his friend’s character as the definition of “a good human being — as a leader, husband, father, friend or a positive role model.”
“People wanted to be around him,” said Roney. “They walked away from him feeling smarter, better about themselves or more loved. That was who Eric was.”
And never once as he battled “this dreaded disease,” he added, “did anyone every hear Eric say ‘why me.’”
On the school’s Facebook page, which quickly filled with tributes from a community inspired by McLaren’s character and long-fought battle, IMSA President Cathy Veal called his legacy “extraordinary.”
“His name is on so much of what makes IMSA, IMSA,” she wrote. “We have lost a very special educator and man.”
McLaren, whose always told his students that “a bad day is a choice” was recognized with numerous distinctions as he fought ALS, including the Eric McLaren Endowment for Integrative Learning and Ethical Leadership. And at IMSA’s 25th Anniversary Gala in April of 2012, he received the Shining Light Leadership Award.
He is survived by his wife Kim and three children, EJ, Tyler and Cael.
Visitation will be from 3-8 p.m. Tuesday at New England Congregational Church, 406 W. Galena Blvd. in Aurora; with a memorial at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the church.
Marshall, who will speak during the Wednesday memorial, says she is struggling with how “to capture all he represented.”
“I am a word person,” she said. Yet “it fails me to do justice to what he brought” to his life.