‘His legacy is us’: Daniel M. Horyn, Niles North teacher, coach, mentor, dead at 34

After 13 years on the job, some teachers burn out. Dan Horyn seemed to be just warming up.

His enthusiasm and optimism changed kids’ lives. He might have even saved some.

Messages on a Facebook memorial page — many from his students at Niles North High School in Skokie — credit him with not only inspiring them to excel but with spotting teenage depression and providing students a safe place to talk.

One note said: “Mr. Horyn talked me out of suicide. He saved my life.”

Said another: “I lacked a true family, and he guided me. . . . He messaged me weekly and made sure I was living a worthwhile life. . . . I owe him everything I am as a person.”

And another: “While I was Mr. Horyn’s student and going through some issues with depression, he was the only teacher I had who made it clear that he noticed . . .”

Within three days of its creation, his Facebook memorial page had 4,424 “likes” as of Thursday.

A tremendously popular English teacher and track and cross-country coach at Niles North, he also found deep happiness at home with his wife of seven years, Andrea, whom he fell for so thoroughly that she cannot remember a time after their first meeting when they weren’t talking about marriage.

Mr. Horyn, 34, died Monday of esophageal cancer. He was able to return from the hospital and spend a little time at his home in Ukranian Village, lying next to Andrea and his dog, Gina, “probably the best 36 hours of my life,” his wife said. When she told him, “God is here,” he responded, “God is everywhere.” He told her he was at peace, he trusted in the future, and he knew he was going to a better place.

They fell asleep. He never woke up. But when Andrea did, “He was looking at me and smiling,” she said. “I was never so happy in my life, because I was seeing an angel. He was glowing. His eyes were clear. I feel grateful that I was able to witness that.”

With his fauxhawk and tattoo, Daniel Horyn didn’t look like most of the other teachers. He welcomed students to his classroom with merry, aquamarine eyes. He’d run around, getting excited as discussions fired up. He let the kids call him “Horyn.” Sometimes, they called him “Dad.”

This year, he won the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s national “MIT Inspirational Teacher Award.” Josh Zeidman, an MIT senior and Niles North alum, nominated him in a letter that said: “. . . . I have countless times modeled my perseverance, diligence and communication skills after you.”

He taught high achievers and also those who struggled. Each fall, he juggled about 40 requests for college recommendation letters, said Tony Bradburn, Niles North’s director of humanities.

He loved the works of Faulkner, Melville and Cormac McCarthy. He read “The Great Gatsby” 17 times. He liked the films of Terrence Malick and Jim Jarmusch. One of his favorite books was Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild.”

“Dan understood the beauty and love of travel and the intimacy it gets from the road,” said his co-teacher, Aaron Minkus.

During his student days at West Chicago High School and the University of Illinois, Mr. Horyn was a record-holding distance runner. He was a generous athlete — the kind who crosses the finish line, then turns around to cheer on the runner in second place. Later, he received a master’s degree from Northwestern University.

He met his future wife at Beaumont’s on Halsted. The next day, he called her so many times, “He called to apologize for calling so much,” she said. They wed in 2006 at St. Wenceslaus Church on the Northwest Side.

The Horyns took trips to Eastern Europe and Thailand. “It didn’t even matter where we were. We could be in the city, on our balcony, and it was special to us,” she said.

They got matching tattoos. In the hospital, he’d call Andrea over to show the nurses. “They’re birds on a branch,” she said. “Where mine ends, his begins.”

He had a soft spot for animals. Once, “He saw a stray cat on the side of the road. He stopped, picked up the cat and kept it in a box at work all day” before placing it with his sister, said Kerry Daley, another English teacher at Niles North.

The Horyns wanted a dog they could run with, so they sought an Italian greyhound from a rescue organization. “Then, Dan shows up with Gina,” his wife said — a dog with vision problems that looked like she was maybe 5 percent Italian greyhound — at best. But, “She’s been the love of our life.”

The Horyns learned he had cancer after he struggled on a hike in the Grand Canyon last year. Still, he remained “very positive and very happy,” said Greg Schultz, a teammate from college.

In his final days, when friends visited, “The first thing Dan said to us is, ‘Hey, guys, sit down, please find a seat,’ ” said Terry Yormark II, a lifelong friend. “Even in the condition he was in, he was concerned about us.”

Mr. Horyn also is survived by his parents, Michael and Ellen Horyn; a sister, Nicole Nelson; and 11 nieces and nephews. Visitation is from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday at Drechsler, Brown & Williams Funeral Home, 203 S. Marion., Oak Park. Visitation will continue from 9:30 a.m. Friday, followed by a 10:30 a.m. mass at Ascension Church, 808 S. East Ave., Oak Park. He will be buried in his Niles North coaching jacket.

One of his students paid him tribute on his memorial page: “I know we’re all struggling to understand why bad things happen to good people, but I think we’re missing the big picture. Mr. Horyn’s legacy isn’t in the cross-country records, or the funny pictures he took . . .”

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