Mike McLaren remembered for helping to shape the culture at JPII

Mike McLaren, one of the original members of the faculty and staff at Pope John Paul II High School, died on Dec. 21, 2020, from injuries suffered in an accident while riding his motorcyle. As the Dean of Students and a history teacher at the school, McLaren helped shape the culture of the school.
Photo by Rick Musacchio

Mike McLaren, a teacher and the dean of students at Pope John Paul II High School, had a tall and imposing physical stature. But it was his passion for helping students blossom, wide field of interests, and enthusiasm for life that made him a larger-than-life figure to his students and colleagues.

“I was in awe of the guy, just like so many kids were,” said Hans Broekman, the founding headmaster at JPII who brought McLaren with him to help open the school in 2002. “I would consider him one of the great friends of my life.”

McLaren died on Dec. 21, 2020, from injuries suffered in an accident while riding his motorcycle near his home in Hendersonville.

“Mike holds a special place in our hearts, and each one of us has been made better by knowing this very decent, loyal and kindest of men,” Mike Deely, JPII Head of School, said in a statement to the school community after McLaren’s death.

“Mike watched over students in every aspect of their lives at JPII, both in and outside the classroom,” Deely said. “His presence alone commanded respect from the students, but they saw past his firm exterior to the great love he had for them. His colleagues always felt his support and could rely on his wise counsel when bringing concerns for his advice. …

“Our community has lost an irreplaceable member,” Deely added. “We will take comfort knowing that God blessed us every day that Mike was with us in this world.”

Nearly 600 people, including many of his former students, attended the visitation for McLaren on Jan. 2 at Hendersonville Memory Gardens, said Jo Lind Weaver, director of donor and alumni relations at JPII.

“Mike’s passing leaves us with such a deep feeling of loss and grief,” said Weaver, who first met McLaren when McLaren and her husband Pat worked together at Subiaco Academy in Arkansas. “I was touched at how accurately and poignantly the messages from alumni described Mike’s impact on the thousands of students he has mentored over the years. Two quotes were, ‘And most of all, I want you to know that the world is a better place because he saw swans when others saw ugly ducklings,’ and another, ‘Even after I wasn’t around him anymore, his influence remained almost omnipresent in my life.’”

A renaissance man

Karen Phillips worked closely with McLaren and Broekman to open JPII. She served as the Dean of Studies and McLaren was the Dean of Students. Together they helped develop the curriculum and student life policies for the brand-new school. They both also taught European history.

“Mike was an inspirational teacher,” said Phillips, who now serves as a history teacher and Assistant Head of School for Institutional Development at JPII. “Students loved his style. He was a great storyteller, which made him a great history teacher.”

“Students felt they were known by him, they felt respected by him, and they knew he had faith they could reach their potential,” Phillips said. “He saw their potential. He communicated their potential. And inspired them to do the right things.”

“Students wanted to take a class with Mr. McLaren. They knew it would be demanding,” Phillips said. “That says so much about his legacy.”

“Mike is one of those guys that everyone knew. And he spoke to everyone,” Phillips added. “It was always fun to have Mike walk through your door because you knew you were going to have a lively discussion.

“He could be totally honest, totally disagree on a subject, and he would still walk out and be just as good a friend,” she said.

McLaren had many interests, Phillips said. “As interested as he was in history, he was passionate about sports,” she said. “He would be at all the choral concerts. He enjoyed music and art. He enjoyed literature. He read all the time. He was a big film critic.

“He does embody all the aspects of the renaissance education that was the founding ideal of the school,” Phillips said.

‘No small talk’

McLaren was born on July 25, 1958, in Oldenburg Holstein, Germany, the son of a British Army military policeman. He grew up and was educated in Germany and the United Kingdom before joining the Royal Air Force in 1976. He held a Higher National Diploma in Business Management from the Royal Air Force UK.

He played soccer and rugby for the RAF all over Europe.

Following his military service, he came to the United States and enrolled in college at the University of Maryland, where he received his Bachelor of Science degree in Secondary Education, minoring in History.

Broekman was a student coaching the soccer team at St. Alban’s School for Boys in Washington, D.C., when he met McLaren, who was an assistant coach. “I met Michael McLaren when I was 18 years old, and he would have been 26,” he said.

“He just made such a huge impression on me,” Broekman said. “I’d never met anybody like him. … I loved his honesty, his openness, I loved his enthusiasm.”

“He talked about life, about important stuff,” Broekman added. “There was no small talk.”

McLaren loved teaching, Broekman said. “He was a person who wanted to lead other people to their better selves. He cared about people.”

Building community

When Broekman was named the headmaster at Subiaco Academy in Arkansas, a Benedictine day and boarding school for boys, he asked McLaren to join his staff there. “It was a big ask.”

McLaren agreed to make the move and served as dean of students, a teacher, and soccer coach at Subiaco.

Pat Weaver, as the Subiaco Academy alumni association president, was on the committee that hired Broekman to be the school’s headmaster and later joined the school’s administrative staff, working closely with McLaren.

“He was the kid whisperer. He had a way to communicate with young people that not everybody has,” Weaver said. McLaren’s approach as the school’s disciplinarian, “wasn’t about

beat them down as punishment, it was about building them up,” Weaver said. “Mike was very effective at leaving kids in a better place.”

When Broekman was named as the first headmaster of JPII, he brought McLaren with him. “When I came to JPII, I knew I would be making some key hires,” Broekman said, and McLaren and Phillips were crucial in establishing the culture of the new school. “They were the ethos of the school.”

Broekman and McLaren used their experience attending and working at boarding schools to help shape the culture of JPII, he explained. “It develops a person in all sorts of areas including as a person in part of a community,” Broekman said. “That was the model we were after.”

McLaren helped bring the house system, popular in British boarding schools, to JPII. “He was a person who connected people into groups very easily,” Broekman said, “and led them.”

Weaver joined the JPII staff in the school’s second year as director of admissions. “It’s not me who’s going to convince people JPII is where their child needs to go, but what goes on in the classroom or the personalities who will be teaching their children,” Weaver said of his approach to admissions at JPII.

When taking prospective students and their parents on tours of the school, he said, “I always, always, always went to see Mike McLaren. I wanted people to hear his philosophy of education … the ethos of what JPII was all about.”

As dean of students at JPII, McLaren was responsible for disciplining students.

In a Catholic Educator blog post after he heard of McLaren’s death, former JPII headmaster Faustin Weber wrote that he first met McLaren when he was being vetted for the job. “I asked him: ‘In a Catholic school, should the punishment fit the crime or fit the person?’ Without hesitating, Mike said ‘the person.’ ‘Why’s that?’ I asked. ‘Because the job of a Catholic school is not to mete out justice,’ he said. ‘It’s to do whatever it takes to help the student grow.’”

“I believe he’s exactly right – that’s precisely our calling, even if from time to time people grumble about inconsistency,” Weber wrote.

Teacher, coach, friend

Rachel Grisard played soccer for McLaren for four years when she was a student at the school and later worked closely with him in her role as director of student life and houses. McLaren’s approach to discipline “was a lot of ‘you made a mistake and we’re going to figure out why you made this mistake … but it’s not going to define you,’” she said.

He held students accountable while also trying to “love them through it,” treating the students with respect and dignity, Grisard said. “That’s one of the most important things I’ve learned from him.”

“Mike McClaren was insightful and intuitive,” said Michelle Barber, dean of admissions and advancement at JPII. “He had the unique ability to see past the surface of a person (and of every situation) helping countless youngsters find their God-given talents and charisms, ultimately positively changing the trajectory of every life he touched.”

“Mike was first and foremost a teacher, and he thought about his profession in bold colors, with sweeping brushstrokes,” Weber wrote. “To create a mediocre lesson was to waste something precious – to abdicate the opportunity to connect ideas and help students think for themselves. What got Mike really excited was precisely this: to help a student develop a point

of view, for that student to defend it boldly, maybe even to get into a good argument with a classmate about it.”

McLaren took the same approach to coaching JPII’s soccer teams.

“He just had so much energy about him, especially when you were around soccer. He just loved soccer,” Grisard said.

“In my four years on the soccer team, I think he yelled twice. He tried to motivate you through stories and relationships,” she said. “He showed you how much he cared about you as a person outside soccer.”

There were lots of conversations with the players about self-worth, Grisard said. “I think he was a counselor at heart.”

McLaren led the JPII girls soccer team to a state championship and a national number one ranking in 2005, the school’s third year of operation.

“Those girls loved him,” Broekman said. “They had an experience together.”

McLaren also coached soccer in the Maryland-Washington, D.C. area for various youth club teams while living there and was a player in The Capitol League until he sustained an injury.

Memorial event planned for spring

Mike McLaren was preceded in death by his father, William McLaren.

Among his survivors is his wife of 34 years, Joanna “Jody” McLaren, who worked alongside her husband at JPII as the school nurse for 13 years before retiring.

Mrs. McLaren “was the love of his life,” Broekman said.

Other survivors include his mother, Eva (Schwark) McLaren, his sister, Jennifer (McLaren) McNeill, brother in law Kenneth McNeill, all of Scotland; his stepsons, Josh and Zack; two granddaughters, Emily and Alayna; “host daughter” Sarah Park, and “two challenging dogs.”

Memorial contributions can be made to Pope John Paul II High School’s Financial Aid Fund.

The school hopes to have an event memorializing McLaren in the spring, Phillips said. “We are tossing around all kinds of ideas at the moment,” to honor him.

To see a video of McLaren talking about his educational philosophy, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXoLIBbyfno&feature=emb_imp_woyt.