What a way to lose your marbles

This week, in a measure of extending my own personal Thanksgiving a little longer, I’m sharing my series of columns that I wrote in 2003 for The Daily Times in Ottawa, Ill., about the remarkable tale of Mark Wiebe. Mark’s story, which I also published in my 2004 book “Northern IlliNOISE: Tales of a Territory,” remains the most meaningful that I’ve ever been blessed with the opportunity to tell during my career. 

What a way to lose your marbles


July 15, 2003

Through his website,, Mark Wiebe was always worldwide.

But now, thanks to a group of Ottawa Township High School students, he’s gone international.

Because, right now – today – Mark is in Ireland. He’s also in Wales. And even Buckingham Palace.

How that all came to be for Mark – the 16-year-old OTHS senior-to-be and friend of mine and many others who passed away on June 9 after a lifelong battle with Type I Spinal Muscular Atrophy – is one whale of a tale. And you’re invited to embark upon it as we retrace the journey of an idea that crossed five minds, six time zones and an ocean before touching down in the British Isles as one of the coolest tributes that you’ll hear about any time.

Any place.

“He was always talking about his marbles,” recent OTHS grad Travis Hagenbuch said last week about Mark Wiebe, who in the past couple of years had become such a passionate collector of marbles that he would joke he was starting to lose his.

“He had this marble machine in his room,” Hagenbuch continued. “It was like a gumball machine, except it had marbles in it. And whenever we came over to visit him, he’d ask us if we had any change.

“So, we all got a lot of marbles that way.”

“We” would be OTHS students Hagenbuch, Todd Conroy, Mike Duback, Jessica Lehmkuhl and Kathleen McTaggart. All pals of Mark’s, the quintet received a request form their ailing friend two weeks prior to his passing.

“We could tell he started getting a little worse, and Mark asked us if we could come over more often,” Hagenbuch recalled. “A few of us came over almost every day. We’d listen to him talk about computers, or watch movies – sometimes hanging out for hours.”

During those hours, Mark would mention how neat he thought it was that Hagenbuch, Duback, Lehmkuhl, McTaggart and another friend, John Stack, would be going on an 11-day trip through Ireland, Wales and England in June.

“Mark loved ‘Braveheart’ and thought it was pretty cool that we were going to England and Ireland and seeing old buildings and castles,” Hagenbuch said. “Not to mention, he thought it was cool that we could travel so far like that when it would be so hard for him.”

The overseas voyage was something that Hagenbuch and the others had been looking forward to for quite some time. But the morning before their plane was scheduled to leave, they awoke to bad news.

Mark had passed away.

“I got a call at 7 a.m. Monday morning (on June 9), and my mom woke me up in bed,” Hagenbuch said. “I was kind of shocked. I was just at Mark’s house on Sunday and we said we’d be back tomorrow. Then there didn’t end up being a tomorrow.

“I didn’t expect it to come that soon.”

Since Hagenbuch and the four others were departing for Europe in 24 hours, it meant they would be unable to attend either Mark’s wake or his funeral.

“We thought about that before, especially as we saw him get worse,” Hagenbuch said. “Actually, that weekend, we had told our parents that if anything happened (with Mark) while we were gone to not let us know until we got back. Because, there wouldn’t be anything we could do about it.”

That was, until they realized that they could.

Just hours after learning the news about the death of his friend, Hagenbuch came up with the idea of bringing a bag of the marbles that Mark had given him along on the trip.

“He always talked about how cool it was that we were going over there,” Hagenbuch said. “And I thought it would be cool to kind of bring part of him with us …

“At first, I just brought the marbles with me to have them there. But then John Stack came up with the idea to leave them places.”

The next thing you knew, Hagenbuch, Duback, Lehmkuhl, McTaggart and Stack were rolling one of Mark’s marbles through the gates of Buckingham Palace. They dropped another into the Atlantic Ocean from Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher. A third was tucked into a dark corner of Beaumaris Castle in Wales, while yet another found a new home in Dublin’s famed St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

“That one,” Hagenbuch said of the St. Pat’s marble, “we dropped in a heating grate. So it should be there for a while.”

Meaning that Mark Wiebe – a young man who had an affinity for the history of the British Isles – now has his own permanent place there.

EPILOGUE: Turns out that Travis Hagenbuch, Mike Duback, Jessica Lehmkuhl, Kathleen McTaggart and John Stack weren’t the only world travelers from Ottawa to take – and leave – a little piece of Mark Wiebe overseas during the summer of 2003.

Ottawa Township High School student Carleigh Damron – the daughter of Mark’s longtime teacher’s aide and close friend, Debbie – also ended up launching Mark’s marbles on a global journey. Only she did it, not from Europe, but South America as Carleigh spent the 2003-04 school year in Brazil as an exchange student.

Before Carleigh left for her yearlong sojourn in July of ’03, Debbie took a number of Mark’s marbles, put them in plastic sleeves and then printed on the outside the words: “I found my marbles in Ottawa, Ill.”

Carleigh packed the marbles with her luggage, and while living in the city of Pindamonhangaba in the state of Sao Paulo she handed them out to fellow exchange students from throughout the world.

So, not only did Mark make it all the way to the British Isles via his beloved marbles – he made it to just about everywhere else, too.

And he’d just love that.