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Whitmore Strong Runs Deep in Rockford

By Joel Koch, 02/14/19, 4:15PM EST


The Whitmore family, Ryan, Stephanie, Joey and Brady. ~ Contributed Photo

Giving with no expectation of anything in return … that’s what Rockford native Ryan Whitmore has been doing for our community for the past three decades. Now battling a second bout of cancer, the community that he has given so much to is trying to return the favor.

A well-known face around town, Whitmore has built many relationships in Rockford – impacting lives through coaching, teaching and volunteering. While continuously being dealt set-backs in his own life, he has always been willing to help a student, friend, or stranger.

It’s that selflessness that so many people have pointed to since he was first diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer in March of 2015. After six straight weeks of chemotherapy and radiation, surgery, and an additional six months of chemotherapy, he was cleared in December of 2017. The clean scans were short-lived, though, as his cancer returned in May of 2018. This time, the news was worse… metastatic stage 4 rectal cancer. Having gone through more chemotherapy, radiation and a targeted therapy to shrink the tumor, he is now considered terminal.

“The administration and staff at the high school, and schools within the district, have been nothing but wonderful,” says Whitmore. “They have offered prayers, sent cards of encouragement and continue to keep me and my family in their thoughts daily. It is with their support, along with the support of our family, friends and community that have given Stephanie, Joey, Brady and I the strength to get through each day.”

A 1993 graduate of Rockford High School, Whitmore’s true passion for giving to others was ingrained while a student-athlete for the Rams. He spent three of four years as captain of the boys varsity soccer team, while also serving as assistant girls soccer coach under his mentor Scotty Hazel. As Whitmore puts it, he was a true inspiration.

“Scotty’s motto was ‘Be somebody who makes somebody feel like somebody.’ He lived that every day and anybody who ever spent any time with him could see it. It’s what I have strived to do ever since I met him.”

While setting an example of how to be a good person, Hazel also taught a lesson in perseverance – undergoing treatment for testicular cancer while coaching. He eventually won that bout against the disease, but it resurfaced again. In 2014, Hazel passed away after a nine-month battle. It was a devastating blow for Whitmore, who immediately began raising money for the family selling t-shirt and bracelets to help with expenses. It didn’t end there though, determined to keep the memory of his friend alive, he started the Random Acts of Hazel Facebook page as a way to pay it forward in honor of Hazel.

“It’s simply performing a random act of kindness and dedicating it to Scotty,” says Whitmore. “He was such a giving man. I have always wanted to give back to others like he did, so we created the page so people could share their acts in hope of flooding the community with random acts of kindness.”

It wasn’t just on the field where Whitmore learned to give back, he also found strong role models in the classroom. He was inspired to go into teaching because of a pair of teachers at RHS – Kurt Caurdy and Lloyd Launstein – and the way they related to their students. In fact, he points to them as the primary reason he became a teacher.

“I teach because of the opportunity to interact with all of my students, build relationships with them and make a difference in their lives, just as Kurt and Lloyd did for me.”

After graduating from Western Michigan University, Whitmore was excited to come back to Rockford where he was hired to teach alongside Caurdy in the Technology Department. The reunion lasted just a few short years, as again, he watched another friend and mentor pass away too young. Caurdy passed away in 2006 after battling a long-term illness.

“I like to think that I am the teacher I am today because of all Kurt inspired me to do. Watching his family go through what they did, especially having kids who are around my boys age now, showed me how valuable life really is. I knew then the importance of family and the impact that I could have on my students.”

Whitmore’s mark on those students has been indelible. While providing many with internship and job opportunities through connections in the community, he continues to bring former students into the classroom to mentor and offer career advice. He consistently travels with them to Ferris State University to visit the Plastics and Rubber Engineering Program, motivating them and introducing the different types of engineering fields and careers. He has run Rube Goldberg and Rocketry Club, and in 2014, began the Tech Leader Program at Rockford. The program offers special needs students the opportunity to team with top students to learn skills necessary for after high school. The options include auto detailing, framing, construction, woodworking and design. 

It’s what he does, and it came as no surprise to friends and family that after another major health scare in August of last year (he spent seven days in intensive care fighting for his life), that all he really wanted to do was return to giving back. In October, he decided to stop chemotherapy because it was affecting his quality of life and decided enough was enough. After a short leave of absence, he returned to the classroom.

“I was sick and tired of sitting at home waiting to die. I was becoming depressed, and wanted to teach. At this point, the good days are what we look for… If going back to work and spending time with my family improves my quality of life, then that’s what I am doing.”

It was during his time away that the Rockford community stepped up to provide a small gesture of thanks. A group, led by Valley View Elementary teachers, sought to finish the Whitmore basement so family would have a place to stay when helping. They asked local builder Gene Gunderson to take the lead on build out, he readily accepted. He enlisted the help of local electrician Ira Bremer from Service Professor, he readily accepted. And, the team at Service Professor came with a surprise contribution – supplying a volunteer group on a Saturday to rough in the entire project and getting their suppliers to donate materials for free!

“We are believers in giving back,” Service Professor President Brad Krause happily said. “Giving back and putting smiles on faces. People in life are dealt a different hand, it’s the responsibility of others to make that hand as bearable as possible. Customer or not, patron or not, we seek this mentality with all of our employees. We simply appreciate the opportunity to serve.”

The list of individuals, families and companies that donated time and money to help the Whitmore family goes on and on – none seeking any recognition, just like Ryan Whitmore.

Ryan Whitmore with Tech Leaders who made American flags for RHS Veterans.

Ryan Whitmore attends college signing day for a couple of his soccer players.

The Whitmore Family walking in Relay for Life.

The girls soccer team show their support of Ryan Whitmore.

The Rockford School of Dance showing Ryan Whitmore support during the 2016 Start of Summer Celebration.