Funeral for former popular Brevard County teacher being held Wednesday
Jason Whitworth died Monday morning from ALS
MELBOURNE, Fla. – Jason Whitworth, a teacher whose battle with Lou Gehrig's disease led his former students to launch a science experiment into space, died at age 45 in his Melbourne home Monday, News 6 partner Florida Today reports.
He is survived by his wife, Gayle, his 16-year-old daughter Alexis, and his 15-year-old son Luke.
His funeral will be held Wednesday, beginning in the afternoon and ending later in the evening. The funeral will be open to the public. Anyone who knew and loved Whitworth is invited to come and celebrate his life. Visitation with his family begins at 2 p.m. at Lake Washington Fellowship Church, which is located at 4050 Lake Washington Road in Melbourne. The church funeral service begins at 4 p.m., and will be followed by a burial at Florida Memorial Gardens cemetery, 5950 South U.S. Highway 1. Once the burial is finished, a celebration of life ceremony will be held near the burial site at the cemetery's life events center.
Whitworth was a popular gym teacher and cross country coach at West Shore Jr./Sr. High five years ago, when he was diagnosed with amytrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease after the famous baseball player who died of it, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.
Before his ALS diagnosis, Whitworth was an athletic man who enjoyed running, fishing, and riding his Harley Davidson motorcycle. Whitworth's wife, Gayle, told Florida Today that her husband remained cheerful until the end of his life.
"He has a deep faith in God," she said. Whitworth was a devout Baptist, his wife said. She added that she was inspired by his optimism.
"His motto was never give up, and he wasn't going to to be defined by his illness," she said.
Throughout Whitworth's struggle with ALS, Brevard County residents rallied behind him.
In 2012, more than 500 people ran in "Jason's Run," which raised more than $25,000 to help pay for medical expenses.
Around the same time, West Shore science students and science teacher Amy McCormick began a research project in his honor that was focused on ALS.
The project involved studying glutatmate, an amino acid that builds up to toxic levels in ALS patients. The experiment compared how glutamates breakdown on earth and in the microgravity of the space station.
West Shore's ALS project was one of 17 student science projects that were given research spots on the International Space Station, and Whitworth's friends said knowing that this experiment was conducted by astronauts in space, and that it was done in Whitworth's honor, was deeply meaningful to them.
Rick Berger, an ALS patient who was a close friend of Whitworth, told Florida Today that he was impressed by the "outpouring" of love and support his friend received. He said Whitworth was an outgoing person who found solace in the affection of others, and he said Whitworth would be dearly missed.
"In the ALS community, we're no strangers to death," Berger said. "We're no strangers to having friends die off, and it happens every month, but this is different."
McCormick, the West Shore teacher who led the school's ALS experiment in honor of Whitworth, said that Whitworth was a continual inspiration to the school's students and staff throughout his illness, because he was so kind and gracious while he was sick.
"If I regret anything, it is not getting to know him well before he could not speak anymore," she said. "By the time I realized how much he had to teach and how much he had to say, he couldn't speak.... I wish I knew him better."
West Shore graduate Genna Owen said she wished she had spent more time with Whitworth, because she said he was the kind of person that made others feel strong, and that he encouraged her to be more ambitious than she would have been otherwise.
She said, more than anything, what was striking about Whitworth was that his first impulse was not to talk about himself, but to ask about others, even when he was enduring hardship. She said Whitworth rarely mentioned his ALS diagnosis unless he was asked about it. "It was just amazing to see how positive he was."
Shortly before Whitworth's death, his mother Jeannie wrote a Facebook message honoring her son, and thanking the Brevard community for its support.
She wrote, "There is no way that I can ever express the appreciation I have for all of you that have prayed for my son and family and sent well wishes and encouraging words to us all. Thank you all so much. Jason has not given up in this fight to find a cure for ALS. He is just passing the torch on to each one of us to carry on for him. I accept this torch and will continue to press on for all those who will still be on the battlefield."
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