ROCKTON — Kris Grahnke always put his students first.
He taught special education at Whitman Post Elementary School from 2014 to 2016 as he battled Lou Gehrig’s disease — formally known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. He received the diagnosis in spring 2014 after experiencing symptoms a few months earlier.
During his first year teaching with Rockton School District, Grahnke got around using a cane. The next school year his condition worsened, and he relied on a wheelchair.
But when his condition made it too difficult to work after the 2015-2016 school year, Grahnke resigned, Principal Megan Forsythe said.
“When it came to Kris and teaching it was about making sure the students’ needs were being met,” she said. “Kris knew his body was deteriorating and wasn’t able to use his body, and it was becoming increasingly harder because of his physical limitations. He knew it would be progressively harder for his students.”
Grahnke, who dedicated his life to his students and community, lost his battle with ALS on Monday, according to family. He was 30 years old.
“Kris had a way of making everyone smile, he was completely selfless, and always kind and romantic,” his wife Michelle Grahnke posted on Facebook. “Kris had a way of spreading God’s word that was gentle and unlike anyone else. He impacted every person he met, whether it was a cashier at the grocery store or a lifelong friend.”
Even as his health deteriorated, his spirit and his regard for others never failed.
“He really showed what a good fight looks like,” Forsythe said. “He was the epitome of perseverance. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. He didn’t let the disease take him quietly. He was a fighter to the very end.”
Last spring, the ALS Association Greater Chicago Chapter’s inaugural IronHorse Ball honored Grahnke for his dedication and fundraising efforts.
In 2015, Mercyhealth partnered with the ALS Association’s Greater Chicago Chapter to operate a clinic for patients at the health care provider’s Brain and Spine Center. Grahnke was one of the program’s first patients. Dr. Shawn Wallery, a Mercyhealth neurologist, diagnosed ALS in Grahnke in 2014.
“Kris was an advocate to speaking with other patients about the disease process,” Wallery said. “He would educate many individuals who had never heard about what the disease process is.”
Anita Stiffler’s fourth-grade classroom was next door to Grahnke’s special education classroom. Stiffler and many of Grahnke’s other colleagues participated in the ALS walk — all wearing matching black shirts touting the team as “Gronk’s Grace.” They also volunteered at a car show fundraiser and would bring help the Grahnkes in any other way they could.
Stiffler said Grahnke was especially close with one of his special education students named Tommy. He would get on the back of Grahnke’s wheelchair and ride around the hallways.
“All the students had a special Kris,” she said. “People learned so much about life from Kris. That’s the person he was. He was connected with everybody; he treated everyone very well.”
Wallery said the Mercyhealth staff members who know Grahnke are having a hard time coping with the loss.
“I think there should be a school or classroom named after him,” Wallery said. “He is the example of why we need to find a cure for ALS.”