April 29—When Martin Mackey was teaching at REAL School on Mackworth Island and trees were falling on the property, he taught his students how to mill wood and build a tongue-and-groove cabin. For PE class, he took them on kayaking, hiking and rock climbing adventures.
“He was a very original, innovative thinker,” said his sister, Marisa Mackey, of Tempe, Arizona. “He loved finding that spark in every child and nurturing it so they felt like they had something special to offer the world. He did that for every student. He saw the potential and the good in each.”
Mackey died April 20 while surfing with his son, Wyeth, off Lecount Hollow Beach in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. He was 47 years old.
He was known for his creative thinking, positive attitude and adventurous spirit.
He started teaching at the REAL School in 2006 and taught for about a decade before taking on the roles of assistant principal and principal.
Mackey lived by the motto “Maintain a healthy disregard for the impossible”. He was an innovator who challenged the status quo and brought fun, laughter and boundless energy to his classroom, where he often wore shorts, flip flops and hoodies.
“If you asked Martin what he was doing, he would usually say, ‘Changin’ lives,’ and it would be the truth,” said Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin, former principal of the REAL School, an alternative school for students who did not thrive in traditional classrooms. “He was one of the most intuitive educators I have ever known. He relentlessly believed in each of his students until they were able to believe in themselves. …”
The news of Mackey’s sudden death was hard on former students and professors. Many shared memories and photos in an online tribute.
“It was because of this man that I pushed so hard to graduate,” wrote former student Tyla Hudson. “He pushed his students and believed in each one of them when they didn’t believe in themselves. He was someone you could always count on.”
Eric Neat shared a photo of him and Mackey with their arms around each other. Neat thanked Mackey for never giving up on him and said he was the best manager he had.
“He was so friendly and fun to talk to that no one really saw him as ‘the guy in charge’. Martin had a certain energy and kindness that made us want to show him our respect. All the respect and admiration we bestowed upon him were truly meritorious too,” Neat wrote.
In 2018, Mackey became principal of Nobleboro Central School. In 2020, he took on a new role with the Maine Department of Education, as Director of Rethinking Responsive Education Venture. The project was designed to create innovative pilot programs that would give all students access to high-quality distance learning.
“Innovation takes courage and a willingness to break away from what we’ve always done, because we always have,” Mackey wrote in a Press Herald opinion column last December.
In the online tribute, Gregg Palmer said Mackey led with his heart, not a policy book or a set of protocols.
“His many years of reaching out to students in need and helping them get back on their feet and take the next step forward will live on,” Palmer wrote.
Mackey lived in Brunswick with his wife, Jennifer, and their two children Elise, 17, and Wyeth, 14.
The obituary written by his family said he was proud of his children and found joy in what he called “human-powered adventures”.
Mackey was an extreme endurance athlete, who shared his passion for cycling, canoeing, skiing, rock climbing, surfing and skateboarding with his family. In the online tribute, he can be seen after a bike ride, covered in sweat and mud and sporting a wide, toothy smile. Photos show him cross-country skiing, on winter hikes, standing on top of mountains.
“You name it, he did it,” his sister said. “He was an extreme lover of anything outdoors in nature.”
Marisa Mackey said her family would join hers in Arizona every Christmas. They were planning active family adventures, horseback riding and hiking.
“He and Jen would always get up early and go to the mountains to run or ride their bikes, then get together with the rest of the family for more hiking and fun,” she said. “He was such a great uncle.”
Many people in Mackey’s inner circle have spoken of the strength of his friendship. He was the one many of them turned to for advice, encouragement and support. He was ready for anything, they said. He was hilarious. He was also caring and kind.
“He loved extravagantly,” his sister said.
Mackey had gone to Cape Cod to surf with his son and a good friend. He had been surfing for about 15 minutes when he appeared to lose consciousness, his sister said. Other surfers pulled him out of the water and performed CPR, but efforts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful. An autopsy was performed to determine how he died. Results are pending.
A friend set up a GoFundMe campaign to help support Mackey’s wife and children. By Thursday night, he had raised nearly $37,000 on the $40,000 target.
A memorial service was to be held Friday at 11 a.m. at the Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing on Mackworth Island.