Jeff Churchill, who worked in the special education department and was the varsity boys basketball coach at the high school, died suddenly Sunday. He was 31. An autopsy was performed Monday and the official cause of death was not yet known.
Churchill was a native of Altoona and attended St. Francis University in Loretto, Pa. He came to Lancaster County when he accepted a job at Penn Manor prior to the 2003-04 school year.
"He worked with students who had significant challenges at the school," said Penn Manor superintendent Don Stewart. "He always was willing to give a kid another chance. His passing was entirely a surprise. There was no indication this was coming. Our whole school district grieves his loss."
Churchill felt ill while coaching at Penn Manor's summer basketball camp last week. He experienced headaches and vomiting. The symptoms were thought to be a migraine. A doctor ran tests on Churchill and saw no cause for concern. He died three days later.
In his short time in Millersville, Churchill made a strong impact at Penn Manor High. He originally interviewed for a position as a biology teacher. Although he wasn't hired for that job, he impressed Stewart greatly.
"We've got to find a way to get this guy into our district," Stewart recalled thinking to himself. "We knew Jeff was the type of role model we wanted for our kids."
Penn Manor hired Churchill as a special education teacher in the emotional support classroom even though he had yet to earn his certification in that specialty. He worked in that job for five years.
Churchill was a basketball star at Altoona Area High School and landed a scholarship at Division I St. Francis, where he earned a bachelor of sciences degree in biology in 1999.
He took over Penn Manor's boys basketball program prior to the start of the 2004-05 season after serving as an assistant under John Erisman.
Under Churchill's guidance, the Comets qualified for the Quad-A state playoffs in back-to-back years - a school first. They advanced to the District 3 championship game in 2007.
Because of his western Pennsylvania roots, Churchill was a newcomer to the Lancaster-Lebanon League scene. Basketball was one of his strongest passions. He loved to talk hoops and big man play in particular.
Churchill's 6-foot-9 frame cast a giant shadow on the bench. He stood above even his tallest players. He was fiercely competitive and seemed to have a good rapport with his teams.
"As a head coach, you have to be the guy that lays down the law and have to make sure the team respects you," Stewart said. "In addition to respecting him, the guys had an affection for Jeff. They knew he was on their side, not just on the court but anywhere they were in a jam. He was there to help them out in any way. That's how he related to students whether they were on the basketball team or not."
Churchill is survived by his wife, Jackie, and the couple's 1-year-old daughter, Kaitlin.
A funeral service will be held at St. Mary's Church on Prince Street in Lancaster on Thursday at 10 a.m.
Staff writer Jason Guarente can be reached at jguarente@LNPnews.com or 291-8777.