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High-school teacher David MacAgy Snell believed in students' free thinking

David MacAgy Snell.

Teacher. Family man. Buddhist. Mustang driver. Born Sept. 15, 1936, in Toronto; died March 31, 2017, in Lindsay, Ont., of prostate cancer; aged 80.

When David Snell developed cancer, he started sending regular updates to family and friends – realizing they would appreciate knowing how he was doing. His e-mails included stories from daily life and made for welcome reading, despite their frank admissions about his deteriorating condition.

He described himself as a "difficult kid" growing up in Toronto, one who, to the dismay of his parents, cared for little except friends and fancy cars. Like many boys growing up during the Second World War, his room was plastered with images of Spitfire and Lancaster aircraft, and he and a friend planned German invasions from his bedroom.

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He dropped out of school in Grade 10 at the age of 17 and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in Western Canada as an airplane mechanic. Military discipline proved good for him, and he began taking high-school correspondence courses, studying alone in his barracks on weekends and falling in love with learning, a period he always remembered with great fondness. At 20, he returned to Toronto to work while taking night classes to finish high school.

He'd "gotten religion" in the RCAF, too, so next came an honours history degree at Bishop's University in Quebec. He contemplated a career as an Anglican priest, but ended up quietly adopting Buddhism's system of attitude training as his guide through life.

Graduate studies followed, and then, a decade after dropping out of high school, David began teaching at one. His career was spent mostly at Thornlea Secondary School in Thornhill, Ont., where he developed courses such as world religions and law. David was kind, fair and believed in his students' abilities to think for themselves. Over his 29-year career, he taught thousands of us, getting us to think critically about topics such as human rights and Canadian democracy. Many went on to become lawyers; one became a provincial court judge and another worked on the Innocence Project freeing wrongly convicted death-row prisoners.

His first marriage in 1962 resulted in three children, and after it fell apart, he married his beloved Dorothy in 1976, then a single mother with three children herself. He proudly referred to their blended family as "the Brady Bunch"; over time, that pride extended to a large extended family, including 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

When cancer came, David decided to go out with a bang instead of a whimper. It started with a Mustang: Blue, striped and with a prancing pony on its hood, it was magnificent, his one glorious indulgence. He leased it for 12 months near the end of his life, frequently delighting teenagers in Fenelon Falls when they came across the car and its elderly driver.

He loved to write, so in a flurry he self-published five books, starting with several family histories, a gift for their future generations.

And despite failing health, he travelled all across Canada visiting those he loved. "Family & friends have become ever so much more important to me," he said in one of his e-mails. "It turns out cancer is able to wonderfully sharpen one's sense of what is really important in life."

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Julia Morgan is a former student of David's.

To submit a Lives Lived: lives@globeandmail.com

Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go online to tgam.ca/livesguide.

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