Gary Mabe had a special way of telling people where in the world he was.
On Facebook, he’d post a photo of sunset over statue-topped buildings and write “Roma bitches!” There’s one of a crowded, cave-like pub, with “I’m in Latvia, bitches!” And another, looking out a window at trees, homes and the sea. “I’m in Russia bit…. uh equal members of laboring classes. Comrades!”
Every summer, it was the only way friends and family could keep up with Mr. Mabe’s adventures before he returned to Florida, Osceola Fundamental High School and his history students.
In a relatively short life, Mr. Mabe saw the world. He also had a way of making people — his students, fellow travelers and friends — feel seen.
He died on May 28 at 56 from glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer.
At the end of each school year, Mr. Mabe’s father would load the truck up with camping gear and take his family on the road.
“He was obviously exposing us to the wild blue yonder of the United States,” brother Logan Mabe said, “but neither of us really liked it. We wanted to stay home and be with our friends.”
Mr. Mabe’s father was a math teacher at Largo High School, and he taught both sons.
“He was hands down, every school has one, the meanest teacher in school,” Logan Mabe said.
But there was another teacher that Mr. Mabe adored — the history teacher.
“He just loved him,” said Mr. Mabe’s mother, Sylvia Mabe. “And he told his dad, he said, ‘I want to be a history teacher.’ And his dad said, ‘If you want to kill your love of history, just try teaching.’”
That, it turns out, did not happen.
In the early ’90s, Mr. Mabe moved to the central Polish city of Łódź for a teacher training program. There, he met Jim Todd, a British teacher.
“He kind of had the ugly American thing going,” Todd said. “He was very loud, he was kind of brash. I think he felt the lack of political correctness as a kind of liberation…but I think that was part of the attraction of Central Europe for a lot of us.”
Many young people in Poland had never met an American, and Mr. Mabe commanded their attention. He shipped two old Pontiacs over and would rattle down the streets in them with his wife, who was from Poland.
After Mr. Mabe moved home to Florida, he and his wife divorced, and he started substitute teaching, working his way into a full-time position teaching and coaching. It was about five years before Todd saw him again, now with high school students on summer tours.
Todd found a more mellow American this time, good-natured, happy to take the spotlight and happy to share it. The two travelers became friends.
Mr. Mabe built a traditional wooden home in Poland and after leading summer tours, returned there and set off with Todd to see Europe. He read the maps and made the playlists. Mr. Mabe drove his white Le Mans, named Rip Van Winkle.
“It was remarkable how many miles he could put on,” Logan Mabe said, “and then come back the day before school started.”
Mr. Mabe taught at Osceola for 21 years. He coached girls’ soccer, girls’ flag football and track. And for 17 years, he led students on trips through Europe.
Chelsea Hooker had Mr. Mabe for her sophomore and senior years and as a coach in track.
“He would get on our level, he would sit on a desk to teach us the content that he had for us,” she said.
After class, after particularly heavy history, he’d say, “enough of that for the day” and play funny videos on YouTube to bring his students back into the present.
“He could engage people, and it didn’t matter if you were the aloof goth kid in the back or the kid who brings an apple to the teacher and sits in the front row,” Logan Mabe said. “He did this in the classroom, but he also did this in life.”
Mr. Mabe’s Facebook page is full of notes from students who adored him. He was the reason they kept sketching, started teaching, learned to take the side streets. But it wasn’t just his antics in the classroom (which could involve costumes) or his easy rapport with students. Mr. Mabe went to every football game, Hooker said, every musical and concert.
Back in class, he’d tell his students what he’d seen them do, she said.
“He was always there,” she said.
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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