Principal Natalie Jaeger said Tuesday was a “sad and somber day” in the halls of Missoula’s Big Sky High School.
Students and staff who knew Tim McHugh — and after a third of a century at the school there are a lot of them — came back from the long weekend to mourn his unexpected death.
“A lot of students had great relationships with Mr. McHugh,” Jaeger said Thursday. “He taught many of the staff members. When you’ve been in the building for 34 years you touch a lot of lives.”
McHugh, who turned 61 on May 9, taught math at Broadwater County High in Townsend before he moved west to Missoula in 1983.
The man his friends called “Q” died at home in his sleep last Friday, hours after his fellow faculty members feted him as the school’s lone retiring teacher. A similar retirement celebration was held the same day down the street at Target Range School for McHugh’s wife, Ginni.
“They had plans,” said Dan Nile, who coached Big Sky football with McHugh for 10 years. “They were both going to retire together, and they’ve got a place on Seeley Lake. They had 'er set to start enjoying life.”
Instead, as Big Sky seniors prepare for graduation ceremonies Saturday on the University of Montana campus, a celebration of McHugh’s life is planned for 4:30 p.m. Friday at the University Center Ballroom. Underclassmen, including those taking McHugh’s algebra and pre-calculus classes, finish school for the summer next Friday.
McHugh’s stunned colleagues emailed thoughts and stories this week about McHugh’s smile, his compassion, his common sense and his passion for teaching and football. (To see those, go to this story on Missoulian.com.)
“His students, including my own two children, loved and respected him because he taught and coached with so much heart,” said DeeAnn Mooney, a math teacher on sabbatical.
“I miss standing next to him outside of our classrooms every passing period greeting students: ‘Let’s do this!’ until the last period of the day, when it became ‘just one more,’” wrote math teacher Katherine Christensen.
McHugh was immersed in football, even after he suffered a serious heart attack eight years ago.
“That was right on the last day of school,” Nile said. “He fought back from that and actually coached football the next fall. He did it from a golf cart that year.”
Matt Johnson joined the late Coach Gary Ekegren’s coaching staff in 2001, when he was the youngster surrounded by veterans — “between Ek and Kevin Hammond and Q, all those guys that were there.”
Johnson took over the helm in 2010 and said he talked McHugh into coaching one more season. He’s bounced things off his friend ever since.
“He was always fun to work with. He kept things light,” Johnson said.
Nile, Big Sky’s head track and field coach who’ll be inducted into the Montana Coaches Association Hall of Fame in August, said McHugh volunteered as a starter and event judge, usually discus, at track meets.
“I’d say he was one of those old-school teachers, the ones who volunteered to step in and help kids. There aren’t many more of them,” Nile said.
Abby Green said she came to know McHugh in the first hours of her freshman year at Big Sky.
Later he served as a mentor when Green returned to the school as a math teacher, a career path McHugh helped inspire. As head of the math department, he was welcoming and welcome.
“You could go to him with any problem or issue,” Green said. “He was a good listener and thoughtful leader. His computer skills were horrendous and someone always had to help him with technology. It was easy, though, because he was so nice and funny about it.”
Amy Roberts, Big Sky’s head volleyball coach, said McHugh quickly became a mentor to her.
“Tim was the guy who always cared how I was doing and if I needed anything,” she said.
Others said they’re already missing McHugh and his “John Wayne swagger as he walked down the hallways,” his honesty, even his reluctance to embrace change.
“He was the world’s last hold out for his chalkboards to be replaced with whiteboards,” one noted.
“His students loved everything about him, that is, except his handwriting,” Mooney said. “Much time was spent deciphering his notes and examples. Why did we let him volunteer as note taker for so many department meetings?”
“There wasn’t a life he didn’t touch of anyone who had the pleasure of knowing him,” said Melissa Riley, another of McHugh’s former students who came back to teach with him. “Personally and professionally, he was one hell of a guy. Saying he will be missed is an understatement.”
“Q was a salt-of-the-earth dude,” Nile said. “It’s just real sad he couldn’t enjoy that retirement with Ginni.”