UMD remembers McHale's big heart
When John Hatcher's class meets today for the first time this week, his University of Minnesota Duluth students won't have journalism on their minds. One of their classmates is the story this week, and it's a sad one. Sasha McHale died this weekend after an illness related to lupus, an auto-immune disease that causes a body to mistakenly fight healthy cells.
For Hatcher, the death of the 23-year-old is even more difficult on a campus filled with young people.
"It just doesn't seem part of the equation," the assistant professor for writing studies said. McHale was a senior majoring in communication with a minor in journalism. She was part of Hatcher's editing class and wrote for the student online magazine Lake Voice.
"She was just a sweet girl," Hatcher said. "Easygoing, never frazzled. With a subtle sense of humor."
He said she was doing well in school despite setbacks in her health. She left Duluth in November when taking on her final health battle.
Hatcher had been keeping her updated on class via e-mail this month, knowing how frustrated she was.
"She was doing great, just jamming," Hatcher said of her fall semester.
She wanted to get back, but Hatcher told her not to sweat it. "Get well first," he said of his e-mail exchanges.
Writing studies instructor Chris Julin knew about her health struggle.
"She was a fighter," he said of the multiple threats she dealt with. "It was pretty scary."
Julin said she had a memorable personality.
"She was smart, funny and dedicated," he said. "I'm going to miss her."
Her UMD roommates over the years spoke achingly of a strong, caring friend who wore a permanent grin.
Veronica Seegan, who graduated in May and lives in Fargo, was a first-year student with a roommate problem. McHale bailed her out by having her move into her apartment.
"She wanted to help me out," Seegan said. She didn't know McHale well at the time, but she said that first impression was something repeated over and over.
"She was always helping people," Seegan said.
Part of that equation was being a good listener, Seegan said.
UMD senior Sarah Mertz knew McHale from Totino-Grace High School in the Minneapolis suburb of Fridley. She was a roommate of McHale's for three years at UMD.
Mertz provided a curt answer with a sly lilt in her voice when asked about her favorite memories of McHale. She said she wants to keep those moments to herself.
"She was the type of girl everyone wanted to be friends with," Mertz said. "She was caring and big-hearted."
Mertz said she was a good writer who loved school. It was frustrating to see her miss classes due to her health issues.
"It bummed her out," Mertz said.
"She was one-of-a-kind," she said. "She knew who she was. She had this way of making people feel comfortable."
McHale's well-known father, basketball legend Kevin McHale, made her death national news. McHale, who starred at Hibbing High School, the University of Minnesota and with the Boston Celtics in the NBA, is a former executive and coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves and is the current head coach of the Houston Rockets.
But Sasha wanted to stand out on her own, friends said.
"That was really important to her," Hatcher said. "She wanted to be her own person."
Assistant professor Ed Downs in UMD's communication department let his colleagues know about McHale's death Sunday evening through an e-mail.
"Sasha was a bright, cheerful young lady," he wrote. "She was a hard worker who always had a big smile and a kind word. It breaks my heart to have to write this message, and I'm really kind of in shock."
McHale's advisor, Barb Titus, also is an experienced grief counselor and students and staff were asked to seek her out if they wanted to talk about McHale's death.
Titus said there is a regular grief support group that meets 4-5:30 p.m. Wednesdays in Kirby 311.
"She was friends with a lot of her classmates, so I'm guessing that tomorrow might be a rough day for many of our students," Downs wrote Sunday. "Please be vigilant for those coping with this tragic, untimely loss."
"Sasha was as proud of her Irish heritage as I am of mine," Downs wrote. "In her memory: 'Ard heis De go raibh a hanam.' That's Irish-Gaelic for: 'May her soul sit at the right hand of God.'"
The Houston Rockets basketball team announced Monday that players will wear green armbands to honor their coach's daughter. Green was her favorite color.
The team said a memorial service will be held Wednesday near Minneapolis.
UMD senior Katie Leach roomed with McHale for two years.
"She was one of the best friends anyone could ask for," she said through sobs. "She had the biggest heart."