He was an athlete, a car collector, a U.S. Navy scuba diver and a longtime middle school teacher.

But it was his short stint as a studio model for a Minnesota artist that could well be Ray Stumpf’s enduring legacy.

Stumpf, 57, died Sunday at his home in Little Falls, Minn., after a three-year battle with colon cancer.

In the months before he died, however, the crew-cut, mustachioed former sailor posed for an 8-by-10-foot oil painting that will be displayed early next year at the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery outside Little Falls.

The painting, by artist Charles Kapsner, honors Navy veterans and features Stumpf as a “lone sailor” decked out in dress blues and a “Dixie cup” sailor’s cap and gazing out across a shoreline of military veterans and vessels.

“His spirit lives on in the oil there,” said longtime friend Bob Mueller. “It’s such a beautiful likeness of Ray that it is just eerie.”

Never one to sit still, Stumpf spent dozens of hours in the last months of his life doing just that. Several times a week, for several hours each day, he pulled on his old sailor’s uniform and sat motionless as Kapsner, commissioned to create scenes depicting each branch of the U.S. military as part of a nearly $500,000 veterans project, sketched and painted from his Little Falls studio.

“How many guys get an opportunity to model at 56?” a chuckling Stumpf said to the Star Tribune in March.

When he wasn’t modeling, Stumpf helped Kapsner research historic detail, checking the color of ribbons and medals on naval uniforms to the proper placement of ship signal flags.

“He just jumped in,” Kapsner said. “He clearly was into it big time.”

Stumpf graduated from Little Falls High in 1975 and spent more than two decades in the Navy, first as a hospital corpsman and later as an engineer’s aide and underwater construction diver.

After retiring from the military, he and his wife, Barb, and daughters, Naomi and Joy, moved back to Little Falls, where Stumpf taught industrial technology and coached soccer at the middle school.

“I tell people ‘It took me 23½ years in the Navy to get ready to teach middle school,’ ” he said in March.

Barb Stumpf said her husband referred to teaching as “his calling” and was quick to offer students an encouraging word or show support by attending their sporting events.

“They were his passion,” Barb Stumpf said. “He loved his job.”

In his spare time, Stumpf was an avid runner, biker and swimmer — he was nicknamed “the shark” at the local pool — who also enjoyed collecting old cars.

“If you know Ray, it’s everything to the max,” Mueller said. “If he’s going to run a mile, of course he’s going to go 26. That’s just the way Ray is.”

Stumpf was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2010. Last fall, as the cancer spread, hundreds of friends and students honored him in a celebration at the middle school. Some stood in line for two hours just to talk with him.

“And he was there smiling and speaking with everyone,” Mueller said.

Said Kapsner, who met Stumpf only a year ago but became a close friend, “Ray’s the kind of guy who leaves a huge impact on everybody he meets.”

Stumpf, who will be buried at the local veterans cemetery, is survived by his wife and daughters. He was preceded in death by an infant son, Noah.

Services will be held at 1:30 p.m. Thursday at First Lutheran Church in Little Falls.