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Eric Gordon McLaren, principal at Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, 1964-2014

When faced in 2010 with a devastating diagnosis of ALS, Eric Gordon McLaren, then principal of Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, took his family to Idaho for a whitewater rafting trip.

Strapped into a chair secured to the raft, he was determined to make memories for his children.

"I'm sure he was terrified on some level, but he didn't show it," said his wife of 17 years, Kim. "He sat there with a smile on his face, sending our boys the message he'd say all the time: 'A bad day is a choice.'"

In a video informing students and parents of his diagnosis, Mr. McLaren concluded his message with the statement that "the answer is in the science" and the announcement of a partnership with Project A.L.S. to involve Math and Science Academy students through group and individual research projects.

"He united his entire student body and asked them to rise to the challenge," said Valerie Estess, co-founder and director of research of the New York-based Project A.L.S. "He had such confidence in our youth. He believed in them and inspired them to lead the way."

Mr. McLaren, 49, of Aurora, who stepped down as principal in 2012, died Friday, June 6, at Rush-Copley Medical Center in Aurora, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

"If there's any hope of finding a cure for this horrific disease, it will be people like Eric that would have helped make this happen," Estess said. "He rallied some of the best young minds in America and has given them a goal. He was an excellent example of how one man can make a difference."

Mr. McLaren was captain of the swim team at Aurora West High School, from which he graduated in 1982. Years later, while raising his own family, he volunteered as a coach for the Oswego Park District and as a swimming official.

He graduated from North Central College in 1986 and joined the startup team for Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. Beginning as a resident counselor, he went on to receive a master's degree from Northern Illinois University in 1997 and a doctorate in 2005, rising through the ranks to head of residential life and ultimately to principal and vice president of academic programs.

"What made him such a wonderful educator was his extraordinary connection with students," said Stephanie Pace Marshall, founding president and president emeritus of the academy. "He was woven into the fabric of our school. No one could have brought the depth of knowledge, insight or nuance that Eric brought to his role as principal."

In 2012 the board of trustees recognized Mr. McLaren by awarding him the Shining Light Leadership Award.

"He was fully and joyfully engaged in every aspect of his life, especially when it came to his sons," his wife said. "He put passion into everything he did."

Survivors also include three sons, Eric, Tyler and Cael; his father, David; a brother, Kevin; and a sister, Christa Morris.

Services were held.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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