Matthew C. Blum, 32, of the Forked River section of Lacey Township, collapsed in the parking lot of Winding River Park on Sunday, Feb. 27, and died of natural causes at Community Medical Center in Toms River, said Matt's father, retired history teacher Charles Blum.
Matt had been playing ice hockey in a recreational league when he complained that he wasn't feeling well and left the game early, his wife, Melissa Blum, said.
"He said he was having a great game. Just all of a sudden, he didn’t feel good,” said Melissa Blum.
Matt and Melissa (Mulero) were married on Oct. 10, 2010, at The English Manner in Ocean Township and learned two weeks ago that Melissa is expecting their first child this fall.
The couple met when they were students at Central Regional High School, from which Matt graduated in 1996, but only began dating in 2007.
Melissa said it was Matt's "big heart" that made her fall in love with him.
“He was always considerate of what I wanted, down to every detail. Where do I want to eat? What movie do I want to watch? Where do I want to go?” said Melissa Blum.
He would send text messages and call her out of the blue, just to tell her he loved her, she said.
Choking back tears, Charles Blum said his son was living his dream.
“He wanted a wife, a house and a family,” said Charles Blum.
“And a puppy,” added Melissa Blum, with a laugh.
"We had baby first, puppy maybe later,” she added.
“He was so happy" about the baby, said Joan Blum, Matt's mother, with tears flowing down her cheeks.
"They told us about 10 minutes after Melissa told Matt. He was just beaming,” she said.
By telephone, Matt Blum's sister, Jennifer Sotelo, said her brother was "one of the greatest big brothers anyone could ask for."
She recalled a time when she and her brother where children and Matt was playing league soccer at Veterans Park in Bayville. Jennifer was on a swing nearby when another boy stole her Cabbage Patch doll. She said Matt caught sight of what was going on and took off down the field in the opposite direction of his team. He knocked the boy down and told her to hold on to her doll. Then he ran back and rejoined the game, said Sotelo.
"He protected me. [He] made sure I was making the right decisions without being a parent. My children adored him," said Sotelo.
Matt played baseball in Little League, at Central Regional High School, and at Caldwell College, where he earned a bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice in 2000. He also was an avid hockey player from the time he was 14 years old, said Joan.
He originally planned to become a police officer, but took a security position at Lacey Township High School eight years ago when he couldn't find a law enforcement job, his father said.
“Once he got into the security and dealt with the kids, I think he found what he really liked doing, which was working with the kids,” said Charles Blum.
Matt Blum had talked about becoming a teacher, but hesitated because of statewide budget cuts, his family said.
He also worked as a part-time grounds keeper at Forge Pond Golf Course in Brick for the past 13 years. His supervisor, Scott Binkley, described him as kind-hearted, good and hardworking.
"We just had a lot of fun here. He was a lot of fun. He’d just do anything you asked him to do. ... I know he had another job also, but I know that whether it was the high school or here, he did whatever he could to keep us both happy, ” said Binkley.
Charles Blum retired from teaching in 2005, but still coaches girls track at Lacey Township High School. He said it will be difficult to return to school without his son.
"I saw him every day. I saw how the kids reacted to him. … I kind of knew how there was a relationship with them. I saw how he used to kid with them. I saw how he pranked them, like he used to do to his sister," said Charles Blum.
Matt Blum will be sorely missed, Lacey Township High School principal Will Zylinski said.
"He was very easygoing, but he never let anybody get away with anything. His style was so easy that he would just get people to do things for him, whether they had to move to a certain place or go to a certain place, or if he wanted them to behave a certain way, Matt was able to do that,” said Zylinksi
Vice principal Jeffrey Brewer said he misses his friend and colleague already.
“He’s one of those rare people. You don’t realize how much time you spend with somebody or how special they are until something like that happens,” said Brewer.
"He is a perfect example of how everybody in a school system can affect kids. He doesn't have a teaching certificate, but he was more of a mentor than most of us were to kids," added Brewer.
Robert Biele is a cook, coach, and security guard at the high school. He and Matt worked closely together throughout the school year. Biele said Matt would drop what he was doing if Biele needed help, even if Matt had already gone home for the day and Biele called him.
"He's the type of guy, I don't know if you replace. I know I can't replace him in my life, that's for sure," said Biele.
Julie Ferenc is chairman of the Social Studies Department. She said she's known the Blum family since Matt and Jennifer were in elementary school.
Ferenc remembered when Charles Blum would host picnics for the Social Studies Department at the end of the school year.
"[Matt] would round all the kids up, at 7, 8 years old, and play with them the entire time" so that the adults could enjoy their time together, said Ferenc.
"Even though he was our security guard, he didn't approach the kids in a way that would put them on guard. He approached them as if they were young ladies and gentlemen. And he cared for the kids that were here after school. He watched out for them," said Ferenc.
She pointed out a memorial poster that students had hung at Matt's after-school post in the high school. They called it Blum's Corner. She said a permanent memorial is being planned.
Students also created a Facebook page called We Love and Miss You Mr. Blum, according to Melissa Blum. More than 1,000 people have already "liked" the page.
Carole Perone is the mother of Matt's high school friend, Robert Perone. She said that when Robert got the news, he called her from the Baltimore naval base where he is stationed and said, "It's the worse thing that could ever happen to me."
Perone thought her son was going to tell her he was being deployed overseas. Instead he told her that his best friend had died.
"He was a good, solid friend to my son," said Perone.
Charles, Joan, and Melissa expressed their gratitude for the outpouring of sympathy they have received. Charles Blum said over 1000 people signed the guest book at Matt's wake. Among them were students, teachers, police chief William Nally, and emergency medical technicians who knew Matt from work.
"It was so soothing," said Joan Blum. "As sad as we still are, it did lift a burden. There was a certain little peace."
The Blums said they are sustaining each other and their extended family is sustaining them.
“Four months ago we were all celebrating at the wedding, and now," said Charles Blum, his voice trailing off. "It’s the same people. Now they’re all coming together, helping us.”
Melissa Blum said she is grateful for the baby. "A piece of him will go on," she explained.
Charles Blum asked the family's priest, the Rev. Kevin Keelin, why this tragedy happened.
"He was honest," Charles Blum said, "He said, 'I can't tell you why. There is no answer.' "
The Blum family plans to set up a scholarship fund in Matt's honor. Charles and Joan Blum said it will be given to "a deserving student who emulates [Matt]." A student who cares about fellow students and cares about life. Someone who is the embodiment of a good person. Someone like their son.
Matthew C. Blum is survived by his wife, Melissa, Forked River; his parents, Charles and Joan Blum, Lanoka Harbor; his sister and brother-in-law Jennifer and Mike Sotelo and their children, Kylie, Derek, and Ashley; his mother-in-law and father-in-law, Betsy and Cirilo Mulero Jr.; and his sister-in-law and brother-in-law Jennifer and Dennis Allarde and their children, Antonio and Angelina.