Whether borrowing a motivational phrase from Dwight D. Eisenhower or the "Carpe Diem" quote from Robin Williams, Brad Engen had a way of coaxing the best from students in his middle school social studies classes and high school football teams.
Engen, 40, was a White Bear Lake teacher and coach who died Feb. 9 after a two-year battle with brain cancer. He is being remembered by relatives, friends and former students as a teacher who was as committed to the recluses in his class as the college-bound geniuses.
Sometimes inspiration came from the pop culture phrases he wrote on the blackboard. Other times it was his creative lessons — hiding paper plates with answers to geography or history questions around the grounds of Sunrise Park Middle School, or injecting humor with Bad Joke Fridays.
"He was the underdog when he was young, the smaller guy who had to work that much harder to be good at what he did," said his younger sister, Jodi Guse, of Ham Lake. "So he had some empathy and he understood. He reached so many kids."
Engen grew up as the coach's kid — studying the football games his father coached at Mounds View High School while other kids his age were goofing off below the bleachers.
Engen later coached sophomore football teams for White Bear Lake Area High School and girls track teams at Sunrise.
Engen's cancer was detected after he collapsed in class in December 2011. He later had surgery to remove a tumor from the frontal lobe of his brain and other treatments. He made repeated attempts to return to teaching and coaching, but setbacks in his health would disrupt them.
His mother learned of Engen's broad reach when she came to his Hugo home to care for him. She found a collection of creative student projects, along with two garbage bags full of paper plates with answers on them. She also found letters indicating that Engen had been nominated as teacher of the year, along with the entry forms he declined to fill out.
"According to him, he always had the best students," said Mary Engen, 70, of Mounds View. "I don't know how he always got the best ones."
Engen was honored by the Minnesota Football Coaches Association with the Cal Stoll Award for his perseverance. Not long after his diagnosis, teachers arranged a spaghetti dinner and fundraiser. The modest Engen didn't know what to think: He told his parents he'd just stop by for 10 minutes, and then asked if there was some kind of basketball tournament at the high school when they arrived to find a full parking lot.
Inside were 1,200 people, including many of the students he inspired during 15 years of teaching.
White Bear High Principal Tim Wald and wife, Terri, credited Engen's wit and passion for social studies for drawing out their sons.
"Our boys are quiet and not always 'on a teacher's radar,' " Terri Wald wrote in a message on Engen's Caring Bridge website. "But somehow Brad learned to know them on a very personal level. He applauded their best qualities and helped them through rough spots. His legacy lives on in this house, as it does in hundreds of homes in White Bear Lake."
In addition to his sister and mother, Engen is survived by his father, Gary, and brother Andy. Engen graduated from Irondale High School in 1992 and St. Cloud State University in 1997.
Services have been held.