State College family, school cope with loss of boy, 8

Park Forest Elementary School students and teachers Wednesday returned from their holiday vacation to a day of mourning.

Mack Brady, a third-grader and the son of Elizabeth and Christian Brady, died Monday night from a swift, severe bacterial infection about two weeks shy of his ninth birthday. Christian Brady is dean of the Penn State Schreyer Honors College. Elizabeth Brady is a faculty member at Penn State.

Two days later, his classmates and the rest of Park Forest grieved, remembering an energetic, popular boy who loved comics, books including “The Hobbit,” and soccer.

“Lots of extra hugs today,” Principal Donnan Stoicovy said Wednesday.

Rather than hold an assembly, the school distributed copies of “Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children,” a recommended book, to teachers to read to students, Stoicovy said.

Shocked teachers met before school, then spoke individually to their classes. Many students made cards and wrote letters to give to the Brady family.

“I think our teachers have done a fabulous job reassuring the children,” Stoicovy said.

Stoicovy notified most Park Forest parents and guardians by email on Tuesday, but Mack’s classmates received a call from their teacher.

“We decided her personal call would be helpful to them,” Stoicovy said.

Counselors from other State College Area School District schools went to Park Forest on Wednesday to help out. Children didn’t break down but many worried whether they were at risk, Stoicovy said.

They were told no. Mack died from a streptoccocal infection that quickly spread throughout his body in rare fashion, his father said.

In an email sent Tuesday to Park Forest families, district Superintendent Robert O’Donnell wrote that the district was communicating with the state Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Mount Nittany Medical Center.

“They have confirmed it is safe for students to attend our school,” O’Donnell wrote.

Mostly, Stoicovy said, children talked about “the good things they remember about Mack” and expressed concern for his parents.

“A wonderful young man, just wonderful,” she said. “Very passionate about soccer, and he had a great sense of humor. Kind of shy to start with, but once you developed a relationship with him, the sense of humor would shine through. Just a delightful young man.”

Joanne Morrison, the Park Forest counselor, said students took solace in recalling Mack’s soccer prowess and “how great a kid he was.”

“How he made you laugh and how he was a fair player,” Morrison said. “So there’s a lot of remembering about the positive stuff.”

Christian Brady said his son loved playing goalkeeper for the State College Celtics soccer team, and hoped to make saves at Penn State, on the U.S. national team and eventually for the Real Madrid club in Spain.

Because he regularly watched Penn State men’s and women’s games, Mack’s family is creating a memorial scholarship for a Penn State goalie.

“So Mack, in a sense, will be able to play on the field he always wanted to,” Christian Brady said.

But soccer wasn’t Mack’s only interest. Adept with tools, he helped remodel a powder room last year, and was looking forward to working beside his father to tile a bathroom.

“He was our handyman,” Christian Brady said.

He also was a comics fan, the strips “Baby Blues,” “Big Nate” and “Biff” among his favorites. Daily, he and his father checked them out. When Christian Brady had to travel, he continued the ritual, reading comics over the phone with his son.

Mack, his father said, was an outdoorsy boy who seldom got sick — which made his sudden illness even harder to comprehend.

He came down with a fever Sunday and rested all day. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, his father said.

“We just thought he had the flu,” he said.

The family made a doctor’s appointment for Monday. By that time, Mack was in trouble. Though he hadn’t complained about throat pain, he had strep. Blood tests showed the bacterial infection had spread throughout his body.

Brady said Mount Nittany Medical Center emergency room physicians acted quickly and decisively.

“They did all they could,” he said.

Mack was whisked onto a helicopter for Hershey Medical Center. His heart stopped en route.

“We get there and they say, ‘He didn’t make the flight,’ ” Brady said. “It was like a very bad movie. It was just stunning. There are no words to describe it.”

Doctors said the infection’s virulence and speed were extremely rare, Brady said.

“There was just no way for anybody to know it soon enough to do anything,” he said.

At Park Forest, Stoicovy plans to plant a tree in memory of Mack on the school grounds this spring. The school probably will dedicate a library book in his honor, probably one about soccer.

Meanwhile, Mack’s parents and older sister Izzy prepare for his funeral at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in State College.

“We’ve got lots of support,” Christian Brady said. “It’s been an incredible level of support people are giving us.”

He and his wife know Mack’s friends and classmates are struggling like everyone to cope with his death. Their hearts go out to them, as others flock to their side.

“It’s just overwhelming,” Christian Brady said. “There’s not much more to say.”