Family, community grieving after loss of beloved educator

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By SHELLY WILKISON

What was best for his family was at the heart of every decision made by Mario Bye. Even in his final moments Sunday, it seemed as though he was trying to make the ending of his five-month struggle for life easier on his wife.

Although unable to communicate with her, Deanna Bye says she believes her husband heard her conversations with medical professionals about what it would take to move him from the Houston hospital to the Austin area for hospice care.

“Even then, he wanted to take care of us,” she said, adding that the move would have been risky, complicated and costly.

From her phone, she played their wedding song, and then his favorite Rolling Stones tune, and noticed that the one eye that could open got a little wider.

“His breathing slowed, I hugged him and held him. I know he heard I wanted to move him closer to home. He waited until the doctors were there,” she said through her tears. “It was the last thing he could do to take care of us, and it was the most perfect way for him to go.”

Mario was 52.

On Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, Mario left Jane Long Intermediate School in Bryan where he was a new Assistant Principal destined for a football game at Liberty Hill Junior High where his daughter was cheering and his son was on the team although not scheduled to play that night.

He drove through Sonic to grab food for the road aiming to arrive by kickoff at 7 p.m.

Bye, who served as principal of Liberty Hill High School from 2016-2018 resigned in 2018 to accept the principal’s position at Rudder High School in Bryan. But rather than uproot his four children from Liberty Hill schools, he rented an apartment there and came home as often as he could.

In 2020, he chose an AP position because the time away from home had become more than he could bear. He gave up his apartment and decided to commute — about two hours each way.

He chose to travel the farm roads back and forth to Bryan, preferring the scenery over the traffic.

It was about 5 p.m. when he arrived at the intersection of FM 908 and Hwy 77 just outside of Rockdale. He was half-way to Liberty Hill. He stopped at the Stop sign, but didn’t see the vehicle approaching him from the right as he entered the intersection. Officers say although the speed limit on Hwy 77 was 70mph, the vehicle that struck him wasn’t traveling that fast, and his vehicle didn’t flip. That probably saved his life at the scene.

It was close to 7 p.m. and his wife hadn’t heard from him. As the game continued, she became worried, calling and texting, and using an app to track his phone.

As she grew more frantic, she got a call from a neighbor who was in tears after being contacted by an officer that was looking for the family. Mario had been life-flighted to Bryan, was alive but in critical condition and she needed to get there right away.

Immediately, co-workers, friends and family communicated with others in Liberty Hill, Bellville (where the Byes lived previously), and Bryan seeking prayers.

When she arrived, she saw that his eyes and the right side of his body were severely bruised, but the head injury was the critical concern.

Deanna remembers the trauma and the heartbreak of that night like it was yesterday. But the truth is that over the past five months there have been so many more painful days and nights that started with a glimmer of hope only to end in uncertainty and a feeling of helplessness.

As her husband fought for his life the night of the crash, a neurosurgeon warned there was a slim chance of recovery. Later, the family was told that any recovery wouldn’t be “meaningful”, and it was just impossible to predict how long it might take before they saw any improvement.

“I told him, ‘well, you don’t know how many people are praying for him, and we’re just going to go with that,’” she said.

On Oct. 31, she got the first call that the end could be near as the pressure on the brain had continued to increase and “there was nothing more they could do,” Deanna recalls.

“We said our goodbyes and met with the organ donor people,” she said. “I didn’t even know he had signed up.”

She said doctors discontinued the sedation medication.

Deanna was on her way to meet with the funeral home in Bellville when she got a call that the organ donation had been put on hold because Mario had shown some signs of improvement.

When she returned to the hospital, the change was remarkable.

“He was moving his legs, yawning, they were huge movements,” she said. “We got our miracle.”

As time passed, it became more clear of the challenges ahead, but the family continued to celebrate every victory.

While he was unable to speak, his wife was encouraged by his ability to move on command and answering questions by squeezing hands. The right side of his body was severely impacted by the crash, but on admittance to TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston — a premier treatment facility for brain injury rehabilitation — an assessment showed great potential. He could read, was able to show he understood, he could see and hear, and he could remember things, including his family.

Deanna said it was never known whether he could remember the crash itself, but she did tell him he was in the hospital because he was in a wreck. She said she chose not to look at photos of his vehicle.

After multiple surgeries in various hospitals from Bryan to Austin to Houston, including adjustments to a shunt placed in his skull to drain brain fluid, she could see signs of improvement.

“I saw him doing leg lifts,” she said. “He was able to move his left arm and extend it forward. That might seem minimal, but to me, it was a lot.”

But all of the victories had to be celebrated at a distance as COVID-19 policies prevented his wife and family from in-person visits. Mario used an iPad to see his wife and the kids, and his parents via Facetime. His family was also able to watch his physical therapy sessions.

Being apart was heart-wrenching for everyone.

“Every day, I get a call with a daily report on his condition and any progress,” Deanna said.

Deanna, who teaches science at Liberty Hill Junior High, said that just over a month ago, Mario’s occupational therapist sent a text with a photo of his first handwriting.

When asked his name and his wife’s name, he used his left hand to write Mario and Deanna — a simple act that moved her to tears.

She returned to work in January, which she said was a needed distraction from the overwhelming stress. And by then, medical bills were mounting and the income was critical.

In February, she told The Independent that her children had good days and bad ones, but still had hope. School for them was also a good distraction from the worry for their dad. Throughout his journey, the kids were only able to see him in person a few times.

Karlie, 19, is a freshman at Texas A&M University. Konnor, 18, is a senior at LHHS and was recently accepted into the US Merchant Marine Academy. Kennedy, 15, will be a varsity cheerleader in the fall; and Karson, 14, plays multiple sports in junior high.

Mario and Deanna met at Taylor High School in Katy where they each taught science across the hall from each other.

She said from the beginning, he was a jokester and the students loved him. She also laughed as she recalled that he would frequently “borrow” her lesson plans, adding that he was often able to execute them with greater success than she did. Mario was a popular teacher, well-loved by all of his students.

They were married almost 22 years.

“Liberty Hill wasn’t what we hoped it was going to be,” she said of his decision to go to Bryan. “But we didn’t want to move the kids again.”

She said Mario was willing to do whatever it took to keep the kids in Liberty Hill schools because the move from Bellville in 2016 had been difficult for them. They had each found a niche here and they planned to stay until their youngest son graduated.

It was Mario’s commitment to his children and his unwillingness to miss a single moment of the school activities they enjoyed most that kept the road hot from Liberty Hill to Bryan — especially during football season.

Yet after all of the effort and the improvements he made working to overcome the brain injury, it was especially heartbreaking when kidney failure took his life this week.

“His mind was healing, and the wreck had little impact on the rest of his body,” she said Tuesday.

It started days earlier with swelling in his left leg and a low hemoglobin count. There was bruising in his leg and he had lost a lot of blood. A transfusion didn’t have the desired effect, and the blood loss resulted in dehydration and damage to the kidneys.

Deanna said her husband’s 23-year career in public education left a mark on so many students and families, in addition to co-workers in various communities. Since news of his passing, she has received hundreds of messages from those whose lives were forever changed because of his influence and acts of kindness.

As Deanna and her children find ways to cope with the challenges ahead, she said a donation account had been created to help pay for Mario’s medical expenses and college expenses for her children. But the donations will also help fund a scholarship in her husband’s name.

It was hard to accept the help, but family members reminded Deanna that her husband had such an impact on so many people who would want to help that she should let them.

“He would be honored to be part of helping further someone’s education. He was just a good guy,” she said.

Donations are accepted at any Wells Fargo Bank – Mario Bye Donation Account.

Visitation will be held at Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic Church in Bellville on Thursday, March 18 from 5-7 p.m. A vigil service will follow visitation. The funeral mass will be Friday, March 19 at 11 a.m. followed by interment at Masonic Cemetery in Chappell Hill.

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