A family in mourning shuffled through the south entrance of Quernheim Funeral Home Friday afternoon, exhibiting the anguish wrought by unthinkable loss.
A grief-stricken patriarch led the group around the corner of a dimly lit hall to see the presentation commemorating his 17-year-old boy.
A bouquet of beautifully arranged roses, daisies and other varieties was wrapped in a Class of 2018 ribbon. The mother’s tears turned to uncontrollable sobbing when she witnessed the display.
Prominently featured in a photo collage at the entrance to the hall, Waterloo High School senior Max Paul had a full, dimpled smile and a cheerful innocence. He was known by many as a high-achieving student and a source of inspiration.
Max was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at the age of 6, a disease that causes progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass. Max’s family confirmed complications from the disease led to his untimely passing last Tuesday.
News of the tragedy spread quickly through the school, and many took to social media to express their dismay. WHS special education teacher Jan Nitcher referred to Max as “one of the most amazing students I have been blessed to know.”
“I never heard him complain about how hard life was becoming as his body quit working,” she said. “He just always had a smile and never made an excuse. Max, you will always be a part of our hearts.”
Similarly, WHS head cheerleading coach Amber Cruser had grown close to the family and witnessed Max’s ability to influence others.
“Max was such an inspiring young man with an unbelievably generous family. Our heart breaks for our neighbors,” she said.
The school did its best to carry on last week through Max’s absence as a KSDK news cameraman roamed the halls for various shots. Outside the cafeteria, a banner taped to the wall read, “In Loving Memory of Max,” and included many student signatures.
The school rescheduled some sporting events last week to accommodate those in mourning, Waterloo athletic director Mitch North said.
Waterloo school superintendent Brian Charron said grief counselors were made available for students and staff last Wednesday. A bitter pill to swallow on its own, Max’s passing follows closely behind the deaths of WHS graduate Noah Hays just last month and WHS senior David Woodall in October 2016.
“Max had a profound impact on the lives of all who knew him. He was a friend to everyone,” Charron relayed.
Among his friends, WHS student Dallas Morrow had first met Max through little league football but lost touch with him when Max could no longer play. The two reconnected in high school to become close friends.
“He was quiet for people he didn’t know. But once it was you and him, he was obnoxious and sarcastic,” Morrow said. “It was funny. We loved him.”
Max’s obituary illustrates a passionate young man who hoped his genius and ingenuity would culminate into helping others with physical disabilities. He had been accepted into the College of Engineering’s Mechanical Engineering Program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
While in high school, Max earned a 4.5 GPA and scored a 34 on his ACT. He was an honors student with no shortage of extracurricular activities on his plate. Some of these included the National Honors Society, WYSE Team, and Waterloo FFA.
Max used these activities as another avenue for befriending students and teachers and exhibiting a joyful attitude.
For WHS teacher Tim McDermott, Max’s zeal for life was obvious, with his ambition to weld and work on engines in McDermott’s engineering class.
“It has been easy for me to see that Max was a remarkable guy to a lot of people,” he said. “He had an exceptional connection with his core group of friends.
“As Max was preparing to use the (welding) torch (for the first time), his crew of friends — Mitch, Quinton and Eli — were there by his side, helping him get ready and making sure he was safe. It was a great moment to watch.”
WHS National Honors Society advisor Jeff Brueggeman added that Max’s inquisitive and humble nature guided him through his academics.
“I think his favorite phrase among teachers was ‘just one more question.’ He was always striving for perfection and was never afraid or unwilling to ask for help,” he said.
Of course, these admirable qualities were not unknown to his parents, Chuck and Monica.
“When he found out he had muscular dystrophy, he never questioned it or complained,” Chuck said. “It was, ‘OK, there are things I can’t do, but I’m not going to let that stop me. I’m going to be really good at the things I can do.’ He just pushed harder despite his challenges in order to be successful.”
Adding to that, Monica conveyed that Max was remarkably independent.
“He wasn’t sheltered,” she explained. “Max never had an aide all his life, and he handled himself perfectly.
“If we were at Walmart or somewhere and he needed to get some things, we would say, ‘Do what you need to do to figure it out on your own. If you can’t do it, get somebody to help.’ And he would.”
Chuck said the family learned through Max’s passing how revelatory his ability to persevere was to his friends. Monica, a paraprofessional at WHS, agreed that Max’s personality “impacted them in a positive way.”
“I had students saying, ‘Mrs. Paul, I don’t want to walk on the track today,’” she recalled. “I’m like, ‘You can walk so you’re coming to the wrong teacher.’ I’m hoping the way he lived his life will make some students think.”
The average lifespan for someone with muscular dystrophy varies, but is said to be significantly shorter than most. Chuck said he and his family knew of Max’s life expectancy but made every effort to cherish their time together.
“A lot of people would ask me, ‘How do you deal with Max having muscular dystrophy because you know your son’s life is going to be short?’ And my answer was always, ‘We just live every day with him to the fullest.’”
For Max’s visitation Friday afternoon, Monica said the family had such an outpouring of support that some waited in line for hours to pay their respects. That’s a clear sign Max’s sudden departure won’t soon be forgotten.