'He saved so many lives'

Marjory Stoneman Douglas runners organized a Run 4 Coach Beigel to honor their coach. Scott Beigel, along with Aaron Feis and Chris Hixon, will be posthumously honored at the 2018 ESPYS with the Best Coach Award. Andrew Kaufman

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To find Camp Starlight, take Route 17 to Hancock, New York, near where the state's southern border bends down toward New York City. Cross into Pennsylvania and follow Route 370 for a few miles. Look for the stone pillars that mark the entrance to the camp, which opened in 1947. Drive down a dirt road through a tunnel of trees until you emerge into sunlight and what appears to be the summer camp of dreams.

There is a timeless quality about the place, which is being readied for the arrival of the first group of campers. It must have seemed this idyllic in 1959, when a music counselor named Paul Simon was recording songs as Jerry Landis. Songs like "When You Come Back to School."

This is also where you would have found Scott Beigel for the past 28 summers. He first came to Starlight as a reluctant camper whose mother, Linda, gave him prepared fill-in-the-bubble notes to send home to Long Island. He returned, year after year, until he became a beloved staff member. Photos on the camp's Facebook page show his growth over the years -- and the constant sense of fun that made him so popular.

For two months a year, Starlight was his home. As for the other 10 months, well, Scott couldn't quite find the same feeling of stability. That is, until the summer of 2017, when the trail from Starlight led him to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, 1,300 miles away in Parkland, Florida.

There was an opening for a ninth-grade geography teacher, and Jeff Foster sensed that Scott, a University of Miami grad, would be perfect for the position. When Foster is not teaching AP American government at Douglas, he is the athletic director at Camp Starlight. "I thought Scott was a natural fit," Foster says. "His campers loved him, and they were the same age and basic demographic as the students he would have at Douglas. He was easygoing, but at the same time he could command a room."

Foster reached out to Denise Reed, the assistant principal, and Sandra Davis, the head of the social studies department, and they brought Scott in for an interview in June. They mentioned they also needed a cross country coach.

"Within five minutes, we knew," Reed says. "He was someone we wanted to work with, and he was someone we knew the kids would love."

"He clearly loved teaching, and he made us laugh," Davis says. "He had this funny, unassuming persona like Jerry Seinfeld. We spent most of the time pinching ourselves."

At the end of the interview, they ran into a Starlight camper and her mother. As Davis recalls, "They told us, 'I don't know what you're interviewing him for, but you have to hire him.' Scott just shrugged and said, 'What can I say? I planted them there.'"

MARJORY STONEMAN DOUGLAS High is named for the legendary naturalist whose life work was the preservation of the Everglades. The sprawling school campus is in Parkland, a meticulously developed community in northwest Broward County that was once part of the Everglades. The school was named after Douglas in 1990, the year she turned 100. She lived to be 108.

Since its inception, Douglas has been one of the best high schools in Florida, with a student body of about 3,300 and a dizzying array of sports teams and extracurricular activities. When junior Cameron Kasky found out that Beigel would be teaching at Douglas, he was thrilled. "I knew him from Camp Starlight, and he was also my fifth-grade language arts teacher at Pine Crest School. I didn't much like Starlight, but he was the best thing about it. And I was kind of a jerk in fifth grade, but Mr. Beigel turned my thinking around."

Teaching freshmen is not easy, Foster says, and Beigel was given a fairly heavy workload that included seven classes plus coaching. "I think he found it a little overwhelming," Foster says, "but once he overcame those doubts and gained confidence, I started hearing really good things about how he was engaging with his students."

"Mr. Beigel made school fun," says Kelsey Friend, one of his homeroom students. "But he also made geography really interesting. We weren't just looking at maps. We were finding out what it was like to live in those countries."

As for his cross country responsibilities, Scott looked upon them with amusement-he had no real experience when athletic director Chris Hixon told him he needed someone, anyone, to take over the team -- and a dedication to physical fitness to match his runners.

"We knew more about running than he did," captain Nick Boyer says. "But he made it fun, and he knew when to get serious. He turned out to be a great motivator."

The geography teacher had finally found his place.

But then came Valentine's Day.

At 2:19 p.m. on an otherwise beautiful Wednesday, Beigel was teaching Kelsey Friend and her class in Room 1256, at the top of the east stairwell on the third floor of Building 12. According to official accounts, that's when Nikolas Cruz, a former student at the school, arrived with a semi-automatic rifle concealed inside a duffel bag. It was just half an hour before dismissal.

"We were talking about the Winter Olympics in South Korea," Kelsey says. "He had assigned us countries to follow, and he had Olympic music playing from his Apple Watch through the Bluetooth speakers, and he was dancing around and we were laughing. That's when the fire alarm went off."

The shooter had entered the east entrance on the first floor and began firing into different classrooms and the hallway, killing 11 people before climbing the west stairwell to the second floor.

Beigel started leading his students down to the second floor, but as the shots reverberated and sounds of panic intensified, he took them back to Room 1256. Teachers on the second floor had bolted their doors and covered classroom windows. With no obvious targets, the shooter proceeded up the east stairwell to the third floor.

Beigel had been trained to lock his door in an active shooting, but he also saw students outside. He kept the door open and ushered them into his classroom just before the shooter reached the third floor. The last student through the door was Matthew Zeif.

When the gunman reached the top of the stairs, he shot Beigel six times from 5 feet away, and the teacher fell across the threshold to the classroom as students pressed themselves against the wall. According to one account, Beigel used his last breath to tell the shooter that the classroom was empty. Terrified, Matthew texted his older brother Sam, a senior who was sheltered in another room on a different floor: "My teacher died. And he's sitting in the doorway."

"Mr. Beigel saved my life," Kelsey says. "He saved so many lives."

At least 20 students huddled in the room.

After reloading, the shooter killed five more people on the third floor before abandoning the gun and escaping down the west stairwell, mixing in with panicked students.

Within nine minutes of arriving at the school, he had killed 17 people and wounded 17 others. Of the fatalities, 14 were students and three were staff members who were trying to protect students: assistant football coach Aaron Feis, Hixon and Beigel. It wasn't until 82 minutes after his arrival at the school that the shooter was caught.

Linda Beigel Schulman was on Long Island that afternoon, working as the office manager for her husband Michael's law firm. The day before, she had received a letter from her son, Scott, that was still making her smile. Linda had found his old camp lunchbox over the winter, filled with a bunch of blank notes, and she had sent the empty ones to him.

Postmarked Feb. 10, the letter was addressed to "Mother." Under the heading THE FOOD IS:, he wrote, "What I eat when I'm hungry." Under THE KIDS ARE:, he replied, "Smaller versions of adults."

What made it especially touching was that Scott didn't really need to write. He talked to Linda nearly every day, usually after class or practice. She had raised her two children mostly by herself and was close to them. But for some reason, Scott didn't call at his usual time that day.

"I knew something was wrong," Linda says.

Michael was out sick that day and called to tell her to come home. There'd been a school shooting in Florida. When she turned on the car radio, she heard on the news that one of the victims was a geography teacher.

THE FUNERAL WAS held on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 18, at Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, a strikingly modern Reform synagogue three blocks west of Dixie Highway, near where Scott lived in Deerfield Beach.

Well before the 2 p.m. start, the pews in the sanctuary were filled with teachers and students, counselors and campers from Starlight, family and old friends from Long Island, as well as some interloping journalists.

Rabbi Greg Weisman gave an eloquent eulogy that compared Scott's life to "The Unfinished Symphony," the masterpiece Franz Schubert hadn't completed before he died.

"During his 35 years with us," the rabbi said, "Scott wove together so many people, so many experiences, so much joy, so many memories into a melody and a harmony that leaves us laughing and smiling through our tears of anguish."

For those who did not really know Scott, the desire to get to know him better increased with each of the speakers, including his sister, Melissa Zech; his girlfriend, Gwen Gossler; colleagues from Camp Starlight; Reed and Davis; and his father, Michael Schulman.

The last speaker was Linda. For all that she had been through-receiving the shocking news, scrambling to get a plane to Florida, dealing with the loss of a son with whom she talked every day, making arrangements and comforting others-she was remarkably poised and strong. And she was carrying the bright blue lunchbox she had given Scott when he was a camper.

She told the story of the notes, about the last one she received on Feb. 13. She talked about waiting for his call on Valentine's Day: "Minutes passed like hours as I waited for your response. The rest is a total living nightmare, and I'm still trying to swallow the fact that there will never again be a response."

Then she said that after she found out he'd been killed, she wrote a response to him anyway. She told him how amazing he was and that "everyone you have touched will never be the same." She signed off with: "Please let me know where you are. Mom."

Two days later, Scott's spirit was very much in evidence at Pine Trails Park in Parkland, about 2 miles north of the high school. The cross country team had organized a Run 4 Coach Beigel, a fitting way to honor him and revive community spirit. Those who wished could donate to the Scott J. Beigel Memorial Fund, which had been set up to send underprivileged kids to summer camp. In return, they got a hand-tied wristband with the beads "M S D" on it.

"This is the first day I've been able to smile," said Chad Williams, a senior on the team.

So on a lovely evening, joggers ran around the park 17 times-moms with strollers, dogs leading their owners, even police officers in full tactical gear. When they had finished jogging, members of the cross country team gave speeches. Said sophomore Annagrace Myers, "Coach Beigel showed up at the very beginning of the year without a single clue about cross country, and yet he made a huge impact. He never taught us anything technical about running. He taught us how to run with our hearts."

The Schulmans showed up to thank the community and add their voices to the growing chorus demanding gun reform. Linda got a loud round of applause when she told the crowd, "I promise that we are going to fix this, no matter what it takes."

THE CROSS COUNTRY team had every right to be proud of the Run 4 Coach Beigel. But proud was not how members described their feelings a few days later. They had gathered at a park in West Boca Raton to talk about coach Beigel -- Nick Boyer, Chad Williams, Kayla Sanseverino, Gabby Rumasuglia, Joshua Charo, Alyssa Fletcher and River Valladares were so familiar with one another and united in their fondness for Beigel that they seemed to speak as one.

"We were mortified."

"It was a disaster."

"Coach Beigel would've been laughing at us every step of the way."

Uh, what went wrong?

"For one thing, the 17 helium balloons that we brought to release into the air were deflated."

"And we had trouble lighting the candles."

"And we were supposed to give the speeches at 5 before people started running ..."

"... but they took off at 5 ... and we couldn't do anything to stop them."

"Coach would've loved that."

And then they traded memories from the season, of meets and meals and the trip to the state championships in Tallahassee.

"Here's the kind of advice he would give us before a race," Nick Boyer says. "He'd say, 'Remember. If you get too tired and need to drop out, just make sure you take a runner from another team with you.'"

Everybody laughed.

"A lot of his humor was dry," Nick says. "You had to know him."

"Yeah, but we loved him," Chad says.

Everybody nodded.

Out of the mouths of high school students. You had to know him.

On that November trip to state, Nick got to know coach Beigel a little better because he sat up front with him. It was a nine-hour trip, he said, so they had to leave around 5 a.m. Several girls qualified as a team, and River qualified individually. Nick went along for support. "We're all sleepy, but before long, coach was cracking jokes and making us laugh," Nick says. "On the ride north, he and I talked a lot about colleges-I didn't know where I was going yet, and he gave me some pretty good advice." (Nick would decide to go to the University of North Carolina.)

Nobody, of course, knew Scott Beigel better than his mother. Even in that first week of mourning, Linda readily agreed to talk about Scott. "He loved sports. He especially loved the Yankees. All of us Beigels did. Then, when I married Michael, we suddenly had a Mets fan in the house. That made for some interesting conversations.

"While we're on the subject, when he told me he was going to be the cross country coach, I asked him, 'What do you know about cross country?' He said, 'I don't know anything, but I'm going to learn.' And he did. Teachers make good learners. I was a teacher myself. And he grew to love those kids.

"Scott was just a big kid himself. But I was so proud of him, no matter what he was doing. He spent a couple of months teaching in South Africa. He liked to travel, and he would bring his experiences into the classroom. That's part of what made him such a good teacher. Another part was that he was selfless-he never wanted to take the credit.

"He was such a good teacher. He was such a good son. He was such a good man."

Ernie Rospierski, another ninth-grade geography teacher, worked most closely with Beigel. "You wouldn't think we'd have much in common besides our jobs," he says. "My wife and I have been teaching here for a few years, and he was new. We're from Michigan, he's from New York. But we hit it off right away. Over a couple of lunches, we came up with this idea for our geography classes. We'd use the Winter Olympics to teach the students not only about South Korea but about other countries as well, about sports they knew nothing about. So we came up with a fantasy league in which we assigned different countries to different students. It was amazing to see these kids from South Florida suddenly interested in biathletes from Norway.

"But then comes Feb. 14. ... One of the reasons Scott and I got along so well was that we shared a love for popular culture. One of our favorite silly movies was Idiocracy, the Mike Judge comedy set in the future. There's a character in there, the Costco greeter, who says, 'Welcome to Costco, I love you.' Well, it sort of became our catchphrase.

"That afternoon, I saw Scott at lunch, and the last thing I said to him was 'Welcome to Costco, I love you.' Silly as this sounds, I hope he knows I meant those last three words."

Several weeks after the shooting, Sandra Davis agreed to talk about the geography teacher she hired last summer. "I knew Scott was getting better and better as a teacher, but I didn't realize how much of an impact he had made until I took over one of his classes after we came back to school two weeks later. The students -- all of them, not just the ones who always shine -- were so engaged and so eager to show me what they had learned. ...

"I keep thinking of what he could've done here. I also keep wondering if he knew how well he was doing. He was only here six months. That's not enough time to get a sense of how well you're doing. ... That, to me, is the tragedy within the tragedy. Scott Beigel never found out how brilliant he was."

DIX HILLS IS is a small Long Island community of 27,000 on the south edge of the town of Huntington. Before World War II, it was mostly farmland, and long before that, it belonged to the Secatogue Indians.

Linda and Michael Schulman live in a beautiful home here, with four frolicsome dogs to keep them company. They married 12 years ago and not only work together but play golf together. It's a nice day in May, and they've agreed to pose for some photographs.

A lot has happened since Valentine's Day, some of it good. True to her word, Linda has become a passionate and eloquent advocate for gun control. Scott's former camper and student, Cameron Kasky, founded Never Again MSD, which evolved into the March for Our Lives movement. The town of Huntington named a street after Scott. Kelsey Friend, who was in Scott's class that day, has been calling Linda regularly to fill in for Scott. Still ahead was commencement on June 3 and a June 19 fundraiser for the Scott J. Beigel Memorial Fund.

But answering calls and correspondence and staying busy only helps dull the pain a little. "It's been 12 weeks now," Linda says with a sigh. "I can't shake the feeling that we were robbed. That Scott was robbed."

Among the hundreds of letters the Schulmans have gotten are some from important people on both sides of the political spectrum. But one she treasures is from the six members of the Zeif family, one of whom is Matthew, the last student through the door.

The letter reads, in part: Within the plethora of students coming in and out of Scott's classes, somehow he managed to connect with Matthew and show interest in Matthew. He did it in a way that gave Matthew confidence in himself, something no teacher prior to Scott had even shown an interest in doing. He made Matthew believe in himself enough to not only complete things like projects, but he empowered Matthew to believe he could complete them well.

Pointing to that letter, Michael says, "That's the thing. Scott's a hero, but not because he opened that door that day. He's a hero because he opened doors for people every day. That student who seems lost? Who sits alone at lunch? That was him once, and he would go out of his way to make him feel valued."

Scott Beigel's official resting place is the Temple Beth El Mausoleum in Boca Raton. But he's also in a lot of other places: Dix Hills, Parkland, Starlight. He is the geography teacher in front of a lively classroom, the coach behind the wheel of a van filled with laughing runners.

"Think how many minds Mr. Beigel opened," Cameron Kasky says. "The way he opened mine. Think how many lives he saved, how many lives he changed. As far as I'm concerned, he's still very much alive."