Potterville educator helps navigate community through tragedies

Tragedy has struck Potterville Public Schools teacher Dan Brunk on numerous occasions, but he continues to overcome obstacles and help his students and community.

Brunk, a veteran fifth-grade teacher and high school cross country coach, lost his daughter, Ally, to mitochondrial disease in 2003. She was only 4 years old.

When Ally passed away, Brunk’s wife, Julie, a teacher at Grand Ledge High School, was six months’ pregnant with their son, Carson. Tensions were high during her pregnancy, as the disease that claimed Ally’s life is genetic.

Carson was born without mitochondrial disease — but he was diagnosed with WILM’s tumor just a few months into his life. The disease is a cancer of the kidneys that generally affects young children.

“Lots of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments kept us wondering if we would lose yet another of our dear children,” Brunk said.

Along the way, three Potterville students close to Brunk died — the latest being 20-year-old Kyle Lamb, a 2011 Potterville High School graduate who died in March while vacationing in Florida.  

Lamb’s death hit Brunk particularly hard; it was Lamb who got many of his cross country teammates to shave their heads in solidary with Carson during his chemotherapy.

“This experience was like losing a child all over again,” Brunk said, “but the experience has helped us all to remember how precious life is and how we can never take it for granted.”

“We’ve had far too many tragedies in Potterville in the past decade or so,” Brunk continued. “Like any small community, however, these tragic events have only brought us closer together and tightened the bond the people of Potterville have on each other.”

Instead of becoming withdrawn after the loss of his daughter, Brunk decided to honor her memory by founding the Ally Brunk Memorial 5k Run/Walk, which is held each June in Potterville. Proceeds go to the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation to help in the research of genetic mitochondrial diseases. The race has also funded donations to Eaton County’s Early On program and the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Since founding the 5k in 2004, Brunk has helped raise more than $45,000.

Along the way, Brunk and his wife have helped counsel others in the Potterville community who have lost their children prematurely.

Brunk was recently presented with a “Building Leaders” award from WVFN-AM’s “The Drive with Jack Ebling.” The award recognizes Mid-Michigan school employees who have gone above and beyond to help student athletes, and is co-sponsored by MEA and Home Management Company.

“My first reaction to winning the Building Leaders Award was total surprise, and then honor as the criteria for the award was read to me,” Brunk said. “I was thinking ‘why me’ as we discussed the award in depth. My teams haven’t won much lately, and my fifth graders’ test scores haven’t been through the roof, either.”

Sure, Brunk’s cross country teams may not be tearing up the course. His standardized test scores probably aren’t as arbitrarily high as some would like them to be.

Yet can anyone reasonably argue Dan Brunk is not an amazing coach and teacher?

By the way, Brunk reports that Carson is now a “happy and healthy” 9-year-old.

Click here to listen to the WVFN segment featuring Brunk.

To nominate a school employee for the “Building Leaders” award, email David Crim at dcrim@mea.org. Make sure to include in your email a description of the nominee’s efforts on behalf of student athletes.