In this file photo from 2003, Wootton High School principal Michael Doran speaks with students during lunch period. Doran was found unresponsive in his Bethesda apartment Wednesday morning. (Robert A. Reeder/The Washington Post)

The longtime principal of Montgomery County’s Wootton High School was found dead in his Bethesda apartment Wednesday morning, less than two weeks before the start of a new school year at the high-performing Maryland school.

Michael J. Doran, 64, who led the Rockville high school for 12 years, was found unresponsive in the living room of his apartment and was declared dead shortly afterward, according to school officials and a family statement. An official cause of death has not yet been determined, but Montgomery County police said Wednesday that it appeared to be the result of natural causes.

“This news is shocking to all of us who have known and worked with Dr. Doran during his long, distinguished career in education,” Montgomery’s interim superintendent, Larry A. Bowers, said in a letter to school families, praising Doran’s “boundless energy, engaging wit, and unwavering commitment to excellence for his students and staff.”

Doran’s death is the latest in a string of wrenching tragedies for Wootton. In June, Doran led the school community as it mourned the loss of two recent Wootton graduates in a fatal car crash. One administrator recalled that, in addition to those two deaths, the high school had seen three other students or recent graduates die during the past four years, two in suicides and one in another car crash.

Michael Doran, a longtime principal of Wootton High School in Montgomery County, Md., at recent graduation ceremonies. Doran died Wednesday, Aug. 19, after he was found unresponsive in his Bethesda apartment. (Montgomery County Public Schools)

Members of the Wootton community described Doran as an exceptional leader who was able to connect with the students and families he served, especially during difficult times. He had a career of 18 years in Montgomery and spent more than four decades in education, school officials said.

“He was a champion,” said parent Rachel Boxman. “He was a hero for a lot of people. He was extremely well-liked by both students and parents.”

Her daughter, Naomi Boxman, a rising senior, described Doran as “incredible” and kind to all. She recalled how he would walk around during lunches and talk and joke with students.

“With every tragedy that struck, and there were a lot of tragedies, he would band the community together and make sure everyone had a place to go and nobody got lost,” she said. “He made sure everybody had a place.”

His death, she said, will be like “a tragedy without a leader, because the tragedy is the loss of our leader.”

Jeff Brown, who worked with Doran for four years as an assistant principal and as a principal in training at Wootton, recalled Doran‘s great level of caring.

“He brought such a human approach to school leadership that everyone, especially the students, knew he loved them and cared about them — always asking how are you, what’s going on, let me help you with that,” he said.

Brown, principal at Roberto Clemente Middle School in Montgomery, recalled a time when Doran playfully stole a french fry from a student’s lunch. “They enjoyed it,” he said. “He was a charming guy with a British accent and everybody adored him, and he adored the community.”

A native of Ireland, Doran spent most of his childhood in England and graduated from the University of Southampton in 1974. In 1976, he came to the United States, where he received a master’s degree from Boston University and a doctorate from Columbia University. His long career in education included positions in Boston and New York before he spent a decade in Fairfax County schools as an assistant principal at Poe Middle School and principal of Luther Jackson Middle School. In 1997, he took over as principal of Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda, where he worked for six years before moving to Wootton.

Doran, a father of two, coached soccer for 12 years and taught Sunday school at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac. He is survived by his wife, Kathy Lavinder, a professional recruiter; his son, Samuel Doran, a lawyer in Houston; and his daughter, Emma Doran, a physician with the U.S. Navy in Jacksonville, Fla.

As news spread about his death, students and others in the community took to social media, many under the hashtag #woottonstrong.

Jodi Glou, who has two sons at Wootton, recalled Doran as a constant presence in the school of nearly 2,200 students. “He really brought life into Wootton,” she said. “He was the heart and soul of the school. He’s been there 12 years and it feels like he’s been there forever.”

Longtime PTA leader Judi Casey recalled Doran’s energy and sense of humor. “He was very child-centric, which is not always easy to find in a principal,” she said. “He loved the kids and he was always trying to figure out what was in their best interests.”

Students on Wednesday began placing flowers and Wootton gear in Doran’s parking space near the front of the school, Casey said.

A memorial service for the Wootton community is scheduled Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. on the school’s athletic field.