FAIR OAKS/MANHATTAN MANOR — One evening in 2008, Mara Schultz invited some friends to her home. When they got there, she asked for their help with a project.
She was making about 150 gift bags, one for each of her students at the Academy of the Holy Names, and was filling each of them with pink M&Ms.
The next day, she was going to tell her students she had breast cancer. She hoped the candy would help ease the shock.
"Bad news," she told her friends, "is best delivered with chocolate."
She had been one of the most popular teachers at the school, where she taught physical education and coached the swim team for 10 years. Some of her students took the news hard. But in the midst of her own fight with cancer, Mrs. Schultz never stopped caring about her students' reaction.
"For the whole time she's been teaching, she's been such a positive influence on all of us," said Taylor DeMesa, who graduated from the school Monday. "If she saw that one of us was getting upset over her cancer, she just had a way of turning us around. She just radiated positive energy."
She had triumphs and setbacks during the course of her cancer treatment. As recently as a few weeks ago, her family and friends were hopeful. But she took a sudden turn for the worse and passed away May 13. She was 34 years old and had a 2-year-old son.
Her positive attitude wasn't just a front she put on for her students and friends, her family said. She loved her life, and her work. She looked forward to every day.
"She's one of the few people I've ever known who actually got up every morning excited about going to work," her husband, Ragen Schultz, said. "She just loved teaching. She loved the girls, and she loved being there for them."
Mrs. Schultz was raised in Tampa. She graduated from Plant High School, then went to Florida State University where she was captain of the swim team.
After she earned her master's degree in education, she came back to Tampa. She taught for a year or so at Plant before she took the position at the Academy.
Not long after returning to Tampa, she met Schultz through a mutual friend.
"I can tell you this," he said. "I knew after two weeks of knowing her that I was going to marry her."
She had been diagnosed with cancer, specifically Ewing's sarcoma, when she was 18. But she had been cancer-free for more than a decade before being diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a mastectomy two years ago.
Through her ordeal, she barely missed any work.
"She came in every day," said her friend Katie Murphy, who teaches art at the school. "If she was having chemo, she'd come in in the morning, have the chemo in the afternoon, and she'd be back the next day."
She saw her cancer as a way to inspire her students and educate them about the disease, Murphy said. She wouldn't burden them, but she'd answer their questions frankly and help them deal with their emotions. Whether she was perfectly healthy or dealing with a fatal disease, friends say, she had a demeanor that drew people to her.
"I don't think there was a single person she ever met who didn't like her," Murphy said. "I've never met anyone who had so many friends."
An estimated 600 people came to pay their respects to Mrs. Schultz. There were so many people there, Murphy said, that the church couldn't hold them all.
After her death, her husband recalled one Mrs. Schultz's favorite adages.
"Sometimes God calms the water, and sometime he calms the sailor," she was fond of saying. "And sometimes he just makes us swim."
Besides her husband, Mrs. Schultz is survived by her son Brian, her mother Bridget D. O'Brien, her father Warren W. Toole, her grandmother and two brothers.
Marty Clear writes life stories about Tampa residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at email@example.com.