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James "Jimmy" Ariel (1996-2019). Photo submitted
Staff Report
5:00 am CDT May 6, 2019

Nick Bridich knew James "Jimmy" Ariel would impact people's lives someday.

The Loyola Academy head baseball coach saw it when Ariel was his student and catcher at De La Salle.

There, the two not only talked about game plans or his homework, but also how the 15-year-old would eventually coach alongside Bridich some day down the road.

“It was extremely easy to see the intangibles and leadership, his attention to details, his persistence and passion, all of those things that create great coaches and teachers, I saw at an early age,” Bridich said. “For the past 10 years, Jimmy and I had been talking about it for a long time. It became a true reality when he graduated, talking about reality, how to get him involved back in town.”

The Loyola Academy baseball community quickly learned about Ariel’s impact in the few months he served as a freshman coach before he his death Saturday, April 27, in a car accident along Interstate 80/90 in Gary, Ind.

The 22-year-old coach and Our Lady of Perpetual Help School seventh-grade teacher died in a morning accident when he veered off the roadway in his Chevrolet Malibu along an exit ramp from northbound Interstate 65 to the Indiana Toll Road, according to Indiana State Police and the Lake County coroner’s office.

People around the program heard the news start to spread before Bridich received a call later that day confirming the news of Ariel’s death.

“It’s tragic, it’s very tragic,” Bridich said. “Even though he was only with our program for a very short time, it was very easy to see the impact he had on players and coaches with his professionalism and energy, his love for teaching, and his love for player development; and he was everything we could’ve asked for and more.”

Ariel graduated from Quincy University in December and was set to walk across the stage for his diploma later this month.

In the days after Ariel’s death, OLPH administrators, staff and students at the school have been trying to come to terms with the loss of their “kind, energetic, inspiring” teacher and colleague.

After learning of Ariel’s death, students and staff gathered on the morning of Monday, April 28, for mass before students shared their favorite memories of Ariel.

“Our seventh-grade students quickly came to know him and love him,” OLPH Principal Dr. Amy Mills said. “They are heartbroken. They very much liked — loved — Mr. Ariel.”

Ariel made an indelible impact on the school, despite only joining the staff in February, Mills said.

“He was a kind, energetic, inspiring guy who knew math and science and was passionate about teaching,” Mills said. “He made science interesting to the children. … He was a joy to work with.”

After having his baseball career cut short by various injuries, Ariel knew he wanted to fulfill that dream he had as a teenager to impact the lives of others.

He reached out to the older players at Loyola through email and made an impact with them right away, doing satellite instruction with them.

The players immediately saw how much he cared for them and felt the connection that Bridich noted, which made Ariel so special and different than others.  

“Jimmy is a model of leadership, team, teamwork and the connections that quality teams and individuals that make teams try to be their best every day,” Bridich said. “Our freshmen this year had had so much success and an positive experience, and so much of that had to do with who Jimmy is and the kind of positive energy, leadership and love that he gave to our guys and program every single day.

“His ability to model that, teach that and be an example of that was most definitely extremely impactful to all of us.”

Mills said she first met Ariel during his initial interview for a job as a seventh-grade science teacher at OLPH. He excelled in the interview, and “I loved him right away,” Mills said.

Ariel was a “class act” and had “an old soul” that made him a “respectful, kind, incredible person,” Mills said.

“He was called early to what he wanted to do. God called him early to be a teacher,” Mills said, adding it was clear Ariel found real purpose in his work as an educator and coach.

Bridich spoke with players and their parents in a meeting on April 28 at the Loyola chapel to talk to them about what happened and remember Ariel. Loyola administrators, including president Rev. Patrick McGrath were there in support of the baseball community.

While the Loyola and OLPH community will continue to mourn the loss of an impactful teacher and coach, Bridich knows they’ll celebrate the life of someone who had a great impact on the community in a short amount of time.

“I think with any tragic accident, when people don’t plan for it, there’s a state of shock there, wanting to make sure it was real and true,” Bridich said. “It’s been a tough 48 hours, especially for our program and coaching staff. I think the best part about our community at Loyola Academy has everything to do with the people and how committed we are to the mission of Jesuit education and what that means, and people that serve that mission are really close and do it for a greater good.

“Jimmy was just an absolute prime example of what it means to be a man for others.”

Seventh-grade teachers and students from OLPH attended Ariel’s funeral Friday, May 3, in Chicago to support his family and recognize his contributions to their school.  

“We’d like to pay our respects to the Ariel family,” Mills said. “It’s important for us to be present for the family and to show 'This is what your son did while he was only here for a short period of time. These are all the lives that he touched.'

“He’ll always be in our hearts and minds.”