Kristoffer James Grahnke, age 30, of Loves Park, passed away on Monday, July 24, 2017, three years after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Showing courage, humor and unwavering faith in God, he wrote about his experience with ALS in his blog “Gronks Finding Grace,” while organizing friends and family into the Gronk’s Grace fundraising team in support of ALS research and services for ALS patients. His life was a witness to God’s goodness and loving care, even in hard times.
Kris was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on November 1, 1986, the oldest child of Gwen Gotsch and Lon Grahnke. He attended Grace Lutheran School in River Forest and graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School in 2005. In the years leading up to his father’s premature death from early-onset dementia, Kris cared for, guided and took great pride in his younger siblings, Eliza and Kurt, striving to be both a responsible role model and a goofy, fun, loving older brother.
Kris found his calling during his high school years, working with cognitively disabled children in respite work and at special recreation summer camp. His sister, Eliza, has Down syndrome, and Kris used his people skills and social intuition to help her and many other children learn, live well and have fun. He received his bachelor’s degree in education from Valparaiso University in May 2009 and began his special education career at Prairie Oak School in Berwyn, Illinois. He completed a master’s degree in education at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2013, specializing in behavior intervention.
Kris met and wooed his wife, Michelle (Jamerson), when she was a student at Concordia University in River Forest. He said he knew right from the start that she was the person he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. They were married on August 3, 2013, honeymooned in Mexico, and returned to their teaching jobs while making their first home together in Elmhurst.
In early 2014 Kris began to experience symptoms that would ultimately be diagnosed as ALS, a neurodegenerative disease that slowly takes away a person’s ability to move, swallow, talk and breathe. It was the summer of the first ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and Kris soon became involved in ALS advocacy and fundraising. He and Michelle moved to the Rockford area in the summer of 2014, when Kris joined the teaching staff at Whitman Post Elementary School. He managed his classroom from a power wheelchair and inspired both students and colleagues with his determination to continue to enjoy life, even as ALS took so many things away. He retired from teaching in June 2016 because of his illness.
Encouraged by Michelle, Kris wrote about his life with ALS at his blog “Gronks Finding Grace.” He pulled no punches and spoke honestly and intensely of his struggles, but his posts always circled back to his faith in God’s plan for him and how he continued to see God’s grace and goodness at work in his life. In 2015 and again in 2016 he traveled to Washington, DC, for ALS Advocacy Days. He organized the Gronk’s Grace team of friends, family and colleagues to raise money at the annual Walk to Defeat ALS as well as at a car show at the Rockford Speedway in May. The ALS Association honored him with its Iron Horse Courage Award at the IronHorse Ball in Chicago in the winter of 2016.
Kris made everyone smile with his kindness, understanding and selflessness. He had a way of sharing God’s word that was gentle and unassuming, yet had an impact on every person he talked with, whether it was a cashier at the grocery store, a second-grader perplexed by basic math, or a lifelong friend. As his body grew weaker, he talked often of the all the things he would do when he was restored to health in heaven with God.
Kris is survived by his wife, Michelle; his mother, Gwen Gotsch; his siblings, Kurt Grahnke and Eliza Grahnke; Vickie and Don Jamerson, his in-laws who loved and cared for him during his illness, and many, many people, far and wide, who have been blessed by his writing and friendship.
A celebration of his life will be held on Friday, July 28, at 6pm at First Free Rockford, 2223 N. Mulford Rd., Rockford, IL. Kris asked that friends who gather at this service wear Gronk’s Grace t-shirts if they have them, or gear depicting the Chicago sports teams he loved (especially the White Sox). In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts may be made to the Gronk’s Grace team at the Rockford Chapter’s Walk to Defeat ALS.
Read Kris’s blog at gronksgrace.blogspot.com.
WTVO news story “Co-Workers and Friends Remember Kris Grahnke” at mystateline.com