Educator Tim Mahaffy has an affinity for heroes.
The superintendent of Fox River Grove District 3 was studying computer science at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., when he spoke with his former science teacher and baseball coach who always though Mahaffy would become a teacher.
He changed his major and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University, his master’s degree from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb and his doctorate from National Louis University in Chicago.
Mahaffy has taught in Leavenworth, Kan., Huntley, and spent the past 15 years with District 3, the past five as superintendent.
While preparing a lesson on the Medal of Honor for his fifth-graders some years ago, he spoke with his father-in-law who knew a family member of a recipient – James Bigelow, the uncle of Elmer Charles Bigelow.
The Hebron native gave his life fighting a fire on the USS Fletcher during action against Japanese forces off Corregidor Island in the Philippines in February 1945. His brother, Lester Bigelow, also was a Navy man.
Mahaffy fell in love with Bigelow’s heroic story, and incorporates it in his annual Veterans Day speech he gives to students, along with the presentation he gives to a fifth-grade classroom each year as superintendent.
The Crystal Lake resident spoke with reporter Lawerence Synett about his passion for teaching children about veterans and his love for a Medal of Honor recipient from McHenry County.
Synett: How did your interest in Elmer Charles Bigelow begin?
Mahaffy: It was a conversation that started with my father-in-law at the breakfast table. I was telling him I was doing a lesson on the Medal of Honor for my fifth-graders, and he said he knew a family of someone who had received it. We met with his uncle, James Bigelow, saw the gravesite and eventually saw the actual Medal of Honor. When you tap into those emotions, your interest really takes off. My jaw just dropped and reality hit in that this was real.
Synett: How do you incorporate Elmer Charles Bigelow and his brother into your presentations?
Mahaffy: I tell them I am going to talk about two brothers on other sides of the world for the freedoms we have today. I dive into what happened and start with Lester Bigelow.
How two days before Elmer Charles Bigelow gets killed, the USS Hornet meets with the USS Fletcher for refueling and neither one knew that would be the last time they would communicate with each other. Rather than abandoning ship, Elmer Charles Bigelow grabbed an extinguisher and headed below. That is what a hero does.
Synett: Is there anything particularly unique in the presentation?
Mahaffy: James Bigelow has allowed me to use photos, artifacts and a binder to show the students. Eventually we come to the letter from a lieutenant who was on the ship with Elmer Charles Bigelow that was sent to his mother. It is handwritten and tries to console her. The kids get so quiet and emotional, and begin to understand the sacrifice these people give for the freedoms they have.
Synett: What do the students get out of the stories?
Mahaffy: This is just history to a lot of the families who don’t have anyone immediately involved, but when you bring in Hebron, two brothers out of one family, they get to know that this is something that hits home.
These heroes aren’t people we read about, they are people we live with. It is important for our kids to know that all the freedoms they have been earned, not given, by the people who fight for us.