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As director of the Office of College and Career Readiness for St. Paul Public Schools, Darren Ginther was well aware of what it took to get students the help they needed to succeed.

So when a large number of kids began to fail classes at the start of the 2020-21 school year, he joined a virtual meeting of school board members to assure them that social workers, counselors and others were giving it their all to engage with students and families.

Of special concern were the juniors and seniors, Ginther said, the students who were closest to the "finish line" in these pandemic-challenged times.

Ginther, who oversaw a large expansion in the number of school counselors across the state's second-largest district, died June 16 after suffering a heart attack while exercising in his Roseville home. He was 38.

Such was the shock that accompanied word of the heart attack, and the extent to which Ginther's efforts on behalf of students and friends was appreciated, that a printout of CaringBridge tributes and hopes for a miracle recovery ran more than 80 pages.

"While I thought he was pretty amazing, I did not understand the impact he had on so many people," his wife Michelle wrote in an e-mail last week. "He was such a humble person, and he did not share all that he was doing at work with me."

Ginther was 11 when his father died of a heart attack and he took every precaution to avoid the same fate, his wife said. He worked out almost every day, visited a heart specialist and took cholesterol medication. An athlete, Ginther also continued to excel in amateur baseball circles, wearing the No. 3. He was known for telling his teammates: "Be a great ball player, but always be an even better dude."

A native of Crystal, Ginther graduated from Armstrong High School and attended Valparaiso and Augsburg universities — playing baseball for both. He met his wife at Augsburg. He began his career as a counselor at Edison High School in Minneapolis and served as its athletic director, too, before heading to St. Paul Public Schools.

There, he oversaw creation of the Gateway to College program within which high school students work toward graduation while also earning credits at St. Paul College. Adam Kunz, whom he hired to run the program, told attendees at Ginther's memorial service at Augsburg that he never had so much fun working so hard as when they worked together.

"He had my back. He let me take risks," Kunz said. "He recognized my successes and he dusted me off when I failed."

When Ginther died, Kunz re-read the text messages they exchanged and he recalled the phone calls, too, which always ended with: "Okay, brother."

Adam Johnson, who played baseball with Ginther at Augsburg, spoke of his "overwhelming energy for friendship" and of how Ginther had no time for small talk — that everything was honest and complete. Ginther's daughter, Lucy, 6, said he loved to snuggle. His son, Carsten, 9, said he was "the best baseball coach ever."

To keep his memory alive, John Rohde Schwehn, the Augsburg pastor who led the memorial service, advised the kids to always ask people to tell them a story about their dad.

"And they will," Schwehn said of the people they'll meet. "They have to."

In addition to his wife and children, Ginther is survived by his mother, Sue Ginther, and brothers Rob and Justen Ginther. Services have been held.