The small-town Milwaukee suburb that always has embraced Shaun Wild and his family welcomed hundreds of mourners from the 24-year-old teacher's life in Naperville on Thursday night so they could say goodbye together.
Wild's former teammates on the North Central College football team lined the hall with his hometown friends and relatives as the casket containing Wild's body was rolled to the front of the Brown Deer High School gymnasium before more than 1,000 people in folding chairs and packed bleachers for a ceremony his family called "a celebration of life."
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A standout athlete and student at the school, Wild went on to play football at North Central in Naperville. He was hired this fall to teach second grade at Springbrook Elementary School in Naperville and often gushed about how much he loved teaching those kids.
Wild was killed about 1 a.m. Saturday, stabbed to death after an argument erupted at a Naperville bar. Police say Wild was knifed in the chest while coming to the aid of a friend he played football with at North Central. A Naperville man is being held in jail, charged with Wild's murder.
Buses and cars from Naperville and Valparaiso University, where Wild's younger brother, Kevin, is a senior pitcher on the baseball team, delivered more than 200 people to the service in Brown Deer. Shaun's No. 36 college football jersey, his high school letterman's jacket and other memories of his high school success were next to a giant photograph of the redheaded, 6-foot-3 teacher giving a thumbs-up as he squeezed into his cardboard school bus Halloween costume for his second-graders. A poster with his smiling photo read, "Accentuate The Positive: Son, Brother, Friend, Athlete, Teacher."
Letters from his parents, Bruce and Jami, brother Kevin, and sister Shannon, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, elicited tears and chuckles from the crowd as they told about the mischievous boy who grew into the man they loved. They talked of peace, faith, heaven and God. They joked about how Wild always made things "epic," and noted that a scholarship fund in his name is approaching that epic status. His girlfriend, former coaches of football, track and baseball, teachers and his choir director told of Wild's passion, desire, leadership, humor, generosity and ability to bring out the best in others.
In college, where he was a punter on the football team, Wild was "full of joy and humor, decency and compassion," said Harold R. Wilde, president of North Central College and, like Wild, a Wisconsin native and Green Bay Packer fan.
"In our numbness and grief, we need to reach out and hold hands with all of you," Wilde said, as he thanked the Wild family and Brown Deer for the "gift" of Shaun Wild's life.
"He loved a challenge. He loved going out and doing something that was difficult," remembered John Thorne, head football coach at North Central, who spoke of Wild's unselfish nature, dignity and "sparkle in his eyes." "Let Shaun live in each and every person in this building, and great things will continue to happen."
"We are so fortunate and so thankful for getting to know Shaun the way we did," said Brad Crackle, a North Central senior who played football with Wild and used to introduce his friend as "my brother." "Look at the smile on every picture you see of Shaun."
"For the past four years, I consider myself to be the luckiest person in this room," said Steve Hlavac, a Naperville native and fellow North Central football player who roomed with Wild for four years and told about the influence Wild had on his life. "I even find myself talking like Wisconsin people."
The former teammates said Wild would want people to be at peace, in spite of the shocking, violent nature of his death. Hlavac said the biggest tragedy is for the children who no longer get to be taught by Wild.
"He was a much loved, much loved young man, and a really good one," said North Central's Wilde, adding that friends flew in from the Philippines and Africa to remember their friend. "It's a family."
About 20 teachers, staff members, a few of his second-grade students and their parents, and friends of Wild from Springbrook drove to the ceremony, noted Springbrook Principal David Worst.
"I knew Shaun was amazing right away," Worst said, marveling at how much of an impact Wild made in his five months at the school. "Every person who interacted with Shaun is better off. ... I thank you for having Shaun come down to Naperville." Wild's students, age 7 and 8, wrote notes and made cards for their dead teacher.
"They say, 'We miss you,' 'We're sorry,' 'We wish you could come back,' 'You're my favorite teacher,' 'You're an angel now, looking down on us,'" said Worst, recounting the cards he'd read. "He made a huge impact."
The hallway and cafeteria outside the gym were filled with family and school photographs, yearbooks and sports plaques. Almost everyone in this town of 12,000 seems to have some connection to the Wild family, and the school was packed from before 5 p.m. until the two-hour service ended at 9 p.m. with a standing ovation from the crowd as Wild's casket left the gym with his family in tow. A buffet with sandwiches and homemade cookies fed those from out of town. Scrapbooks of letters from Springbrook teachers and notes and drawings from Wild's students made readers cry as they thumbed through the pages.
"The first night, he cried himself to sleep," Joe Bugajsky said of his son, Danny, whose scrapbook note to his teacher said, "I love you, Mr. Wild." Danny asked to come to the service, said his mother, Jennifer, who also brought 12-year-old son Chris on the drive from Naperville.
"He's been gravitating to the poster all night," the dad said as Danny and some of his young friends sat high in the bleachers under a photo of Wild before the service. "We don't even know how to handle this, so it's tough to expect a 7-year-old to handle it."