Stephen Ashcroft was busy with the birth of his daughter, who arrived six weeks early, when he started to feel ill and frail just 18 months ago.
His shoulder and stomach ached, and, weeks later, doctors diagnosed him with stage 4 colon cancer. Ashcroft, an educator and mentor to Minneapolis elementary school students, died Dec. 14 at home, surrounded by family and friends. He was 37.
“He was a beautiful soul,” said his wife, Anna Ashcroft. “He had a very gentle way about him.”
Ashcroft, who went by Steve, was born in Capetown, South Africa, and came to the United States at age 4. Ashcroft grew up in the Twin Cities, the son of Episcopalian priests, and earned a bachelor’s degree in African history from Kenyon College in rural Ohio. After a stint in New York while Anna attended graduate school, the couple came back to Minneapolis in 2011 and made it home.
Long before his diagnosis, Ashcroft threw himself into teaching and mentoring children. He was a site coordinator for the Minneapolis Kids child care program at Bancroft, Lake Harriet Lower and Hale elementary schools. He was later promoted to program director, managing resources and the effectiveness of the program, among other duties.
“He had a really keen insight into the kids and their needs. He just loved all of the time with them,” said Charity Kroeker Calubayan, a friend and former classmate who knew Ashcroft through Minneapolis Kids. “He would develop goals especially for individual students to help them with relationships. He just wanted them to grow up to be good people and to have a positive social life.”
Previously, Ashcroft worked with Americorp Vista, tutoring and tending to youths with developmental disabilities. He also spent some time working as an office manager for Whittier Alliance.
Ashcroft’s love for children and education prompted him to start on a master’s degree in elementary education at Hamline University in St. Paul; he was halfway through before his illness ended his studies.
Shortly after his diagnosis, Ashcroft became a member of Gilda’s Club, a support group that offers education, socializing and therapies for people living with cancer and their families. He was a participant in the LISTEN Project, a collaboration between Gilda’s Club and Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater, performing a monologue on stage about his cancer experience.
“He was a really well-loved member,” said Ali DeCamillis, Gilda’s Club program director. “In his young life, he gathered a lot of wisdom that he really shared very openly here and very authentically with a lot of truth.”
Ashcroft was an avid reader and writer, who also relished bird-watching, music and ultimate Frisbee. In fact, his Frisbee playing skill and stature enticed Anna on the field.
“When I first met him I was so drawn to him because everybody was drawn to him,” Anna said. “He was tall and athletic. If you talked to him, if you had a conversation with him, he would always make you feel like you were the most important person in the world.”
Ashcroft was a keen observer and had passion for connecting with people, his wife said. He often invited people over for dinner. He was emotionally and socially connected because “he generally wanted to know what you had to say and wanted to understand people,” Anna Ashcroft said.
Ashcroft is survived by his wife and children, Henry and Alice; his parents, the Revs. Ernie and Mary Ellen Ashcroft, and his siblings, Andrew and Susannah.
Funeral services will be Jan. 7, 1:30 p.m. at St. John the Evangelist Church, 549 Portland Av., St. Paul, Minn.