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Vickroy: New tennis courts to be named in teacher’s memory

The late Matt Gavis pictured with his wife Kate their daughter Clare.  |  Supplied photo

The late Matt Gavin is pictured with his wife Kate and their daughter Clare. | Supplied photo

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Updated: May 30, 2014 6:23AM



The prognosis was not good. The pain was intense. And yet the only thing Matt Gavin could think about in the days leading up to Christmas 2012, was his wife Kate.

“He was in a lot pain,” recalled his mom, Mary Ellen Gavin, a speech pathologist at Eisenhower High School. But as he and his father were leaving the doctor’s office on Dec. 23, she said, Matt insisted they go straight to this exclusive jewelry store so he could buy Kate a really nice, expensive pair of earrings.

“He said, ‘It might be the last gift I give her,’” she recalled.

Matt Gavin died the following May. As his family, and indeed the entire Richards High School community, struggle to cope with the loss of the popular social studies teacher and tennis coach, Mary Ellen finds comfort in her only son’s legacy.

“He lived a lot of life in the short time he was here,” she said. Matt was just 32 when he succumbed to sarcoma, a soft-tissue cancer.

And even though she dearly misses his daily calls to “talk shop,” Mary Ellen said, “It’s easier knowing I had a kid a lot of people loved.”

The outpouring of notes, cards, emails and other expressions of sympathy cite Matt’s compassion, his tolerance, his sense of humor and his ability to make just about everyone feel special, she said.

On Tuesday, just shy of two weeks to the anniversary of his death, District 218 officials will dedicate the new tennis courts at the Oak Lawn high school in Matt Gavin’s name. The 30-minute ceremony gets underway at 4:15 p.m.

“I know he’s smiling down on this,” Mary Ellen said. “He was always trying to get those courts fixed. There were so many weeds.”

Kate Gavin said, “Matt was a truly wonderful husband and a father who had endless love and funny faces for his daughter. We are so proud of Matt and humbled by this tribute to him from his Bulldog family. Matt loved teaching and coaching tennis ... and most of all loved his students.”

Matt was passionate about tennis, said his father Dr. Glenn Gavin, because it is a sport in which an individual can contribute to his team while consistently challenging himself to be better.

“He used to talk about how tennis was something that he would be able to pursue for many years to come, and while regrettably this was not to be the case for Matt, part of his legacy is the fact that the students he touched with his passion for the game would be able to carry on where he left off,” Glenn said.

The District 218 Foundation is also organizing a scholarship fund in Matt Gavin’s name. During Richards’ senior awards ceremony May 13, one outstanding social studies student will receive a $500 award. Spokesmnan Bob McParland said the district hopes to keep the fund going for many years to come.

James Soderstrom, business education teacher at Richards, said Matt had a unique ability to adapt his teaching style to the needs of each student. As a result, many of his teaching methods were shared across the district.

“It made him one of the best teachers at Richards. He did not care if he was teaching AP courses or regular education or Introduction level courses, he had a special way to reach each student so they could learn and understand the material forever, not just for the test,” Soderstrom said.

“He made everyone around him better,” said John Chappetto, social studies teacher and basketball coach at Richards.

Glenn and Mary Ellen said even as a young child, Matt was always kind. In preschool, he exhibited incredible empathy, befriending the underdog and championing justice.

When he was 9, Matt received a biography of Nelson Mandela, a Christmas gift that had a profound effect on him, she said. “I think it started his passionate embrace of history and social studies. Matt gained such a clear message from just reading his Christmas gift. It resounded for years to come,” she said.

Glenn said, “One of the most rewarding revelations Mary Ellen and I ever got was when his high school principal approached us at his graduation to tell us that Matt and some of his buddies used to routinely meet the special needs bus as it would arrive at school in order to lend a hand. The principal was quite clear that this while this wasn’t officially sanctioned, he was hard pressed to intervene on acts that were born out of genuine compassion.”

Matt met Kate while both were students at the University of Iowa. Matt entered as a business student but his experience mentoring young students through the business fraternity convinced him to change his major to education, his mom said.

Watching their son’s relationship with Kate blossom was rewarding, she said. “I loved the way he could make Kate laugh with pure silliness.”

Glenn agreed. “It was so very fulfilling to see our boy become the man that we hoped he would, and for him to be so happy in the process.”

Matt and Kate’s daughter Clare was just 5 months old when Matt passed.

Glenn Gavin recalled a telling moment while he was at his son’s side in the hospital just a few days before he passed.

“Matt was informed that the end of his life here was not far off. The resident was inclined to run more tests and keep Matt hospitalized in order to make him more comfortable,” he said. “Matt, however, made it very clear that this was not how it was going to be. Matt stuck his phone with the baby’s picture squarely in the resident’s face and let him know in no uncertain terms that his dad was taking him home to be with his little girl.”

In the months after his passing, Mary Ellen said, they’ve received many heartfelt letters that shined light on their son’s legacy, one in particular from a man who wrote in clipped English.

“One of Matt’s students had mentioned that her dad didn’t think college was important, so Matt went to the man’s house one evening to convince him otherwise,” she said. “In his letter, the man wrote that his third kid was now in college, all because of that conversation.”

Though the past year has been rough, Mary Ellen said grief counseling has helped the family cope with the loss. “I want people to know that it’s OK to talk about Matt, that I want to talk about Matt.”

Glenn added, “I can say unequivocally that Matt was the finest and bravest man I have ever met. Matt made me better for all the time we shared together, both as a child and as an adult. I will always miss him and will never understand the notion that a child passes before the parent, but the fact that he trusted me to care for him as his health declined, and that he was in my arms when he moved on was the greatest gift he could have ever given me.”

The new tennis courts will be dedicated in Matt Gavin’s name at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday at Richards High School, 10601 Central Ave., Oak Lawn; (708) 499-2550; chsd218.org.



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