VASHON ISLAND -- David Foege likely would have been surprised, and probably even slightly uneasy, at the outpouring of love, admiration and crushing sense of loss that have washed over this tight-knit island community following his death last week.
"If you knew David, or maybe even had a brief conversation with him, you felt like you had a special relationship with him," said Stacy Carkonen, one of Foege's close friends. "That's just the way he affected people."
Foege, 44, who had struggled with depression since he was a child, took his own life earlier this month.
Foege was a popular teacher at McMurray Middle School and the eldest son of the world-renowned public health pioneer, William Foege, who developed the global strategy that led to the eradication of smallpox. The younger Foege spent much of his childhood outside of the U.S., traveling with his family across Africa and India.
During his college days, he developed an interest in Russian history and enrolled at Leningrad State University -- even though he spoke no Russian.
"That was typical of him," said Bill Foege, his father. "He was insatiably curious with a real sense of adventure."
Besides teaching social studies on Vashon for the past 15 years, Foege was an accomplished guitar player and instructor in outdoor survival skills. He and another teacher at McMurray, Terry Swift, were developing graphic novels aimed at introducing their students to history, culture and philosophy.
"David had this amazing wealth of knowledge and knew how to make it accessible to kids," said Gates Johnson, a friend and another colleague at McMurray.
On April 20, Foege killed himself. Friends and family said he had been making plans for activities with others later that day and on the weekend so it was clearly not premeditated. Something incomprehensible had overwhelmed Foege, husband to Jennifer and father to Max, 9, and 22-month-old daughter Olyana.
"Depression took him," said Bill Foege, now senior adviser to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
"We talked about some dark stuff, but I didn't realize he was in such pain," Swift said. "And I was one of his best friends. He was a very private person, in many ways."
For such a private person, however, Foege had a broad, public impact.
A memorial service held for him earlier this week at Vashon United Methodist Church attracted hundreds of people, so many that perhaps half of the attendees had to stand outside in the drizzle and listen to the ceremony on speakers. The ferries that afternoon were overloaded between Seattle and the island.
"It was incredible," said Kimm Shride, a ferry system worker who, like many parents here, said Foege had transformed the educational experience for her child. "My daughter just loved Mr. Foege."
Part of his success as a teacher, said his mother, Paula Foege, likely came from the fact that he had hated school as a boy. He struggled with dyslexia, she said, and also had a bit of the rebel streak in him.
"Yet when he was maybe 11 or 12 years old, he was reading a lot of the same books I was reading, like 'Papillon' or 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,' " she said. Her son was incredibly curious and open to new experiences or ideas, she said, but he didn't much like the confines of the standard educational approach.
"David really knew how to listen to troubled kids," Jennifer Foege said. "He wouldn't coddle anybody, but he really listened to them. It made a big difference."
Foege's younger brothers, Michael and Robert, say their older brother decided at an early age that he would settle in the Seattle area, largely because he loved the outdoors. Robert Foege remembered coming to visit him after he bought a "shack" on Vashon that had no running water -- and a rat problem.
"Even his dog was afraid of those rats," Robert Foege said. "That was quite a place."
Michael Foege, who works in construction with his brother in Atlanta, looks an awful lot like his older brother. When he came to visit David, he was often mistaken for the well-known teacher and would sometimes play along.
"I once left a bar tab for him to pay," Michael Foege said, chuckling. He recalled when they were both boys living in India. While their father played a critical role in the public health fight against smallpox, they were out looking for pranks to pull on the crazy streets of New Delhi.
"We'd put cherry bombs in the cow pies and then run like mad," Michael Foege said.
Daryl Redeker, a Vashon musician who played with Foege and also sang at his service, said his friend was widely appreciated on the island for his kindness, humor and empathy.
Redeker, who also suffers from depression, said Foege once probably saved his life by taking him to the hospital for treatment during a deep, dark period.
"I wonder if he was able to listen to other people's problems more than he could listen to his own," he said. "You could talk to David about anything. He made you feel safe, and he had this killer laugh, man. I've never met anybody like him ... and I'll never be the same around anybody else."
Students at McMurray are planning to plant a tree in memory of Foege.
The Foege family is establishing an educational fund for Vashon students and donations, for now, can be sent to the David Foege Fund at Vashon United Methodist Church, Box 330, Vashon, WA 98070.
Saturday 28 April 2007
By Tom Paulson P-I Reporter