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Editorial: His passing leaves a hole in our hearts

Greg Danke would have loved the moment early Sunday morning: It was pre-dawn, 50 degrees and absolutely still, save for a lone squirrel ripping acorns from the upper reaches of a red oak behind Dave Page's house.

The rodent's "swooshing" of leaves was punctuated now and again by a solid "thunk" as maturing black walnuts released from a nearby tree and hit the hard ground below.

I'm sure Mr. Danke already had his teacher schedules arranged and programs queued up for start of school next month. He probably knew exactly who'd be coming out for football and had penned notes for his opening day comments.

He'd also probably been shooting his bow, preparing for the archery deer opener a month from now.

I was still stunned by the fact that he'd died -- so young; so soon.

Why him?

Like hundreds of others on the fringe of the text-message generation, I'd learned of Greg's death second-hand late Friday night, but I didn't want to believe it.

We were not "close personal friends" by any means but like hundreds of other Meyer Middle School parents, he'd become someone I'd come to know and respect a great deal.

He was part of the mortar -- the very fabric of what we affectionately refer to as our "community."

Over five years' exposure at parent-teacher conferences, chance passings at music concerts and snippets shared by my kids, I'd vicariously learned about Greg's management style, his values, his approach to discipline and his ability to establish a rapport with kids.

It was all good by my measurements, even though my offspring didn't always come out in the winner's column.

Maybe it was the ice cream bars he and coworkers handed out to students and parents in the cafeteria during orientation sessions prior to the start of school each year.

Both my kids loved the annual spring picnic when Greg and then assistant principal Roger Buchholz fired up the grill and served up "Danke Dogs and Buchholz Burgers."

Danke was the guy we heard about over dinner who had collared the kid who'd made the bomb threat, penned vulgar graffiti in a middle school restroom or intervened in one crisis or another involving sixth-, seventh- or eighth-graders.

In that sense, I guess I regularly and secretly tested my judgment against Greg's.

I long ago concluded I could never make it as a middle school educator or disciplinarian. And this was a man who asked to give up the principal's job for a chance to return to his role as assistant. He obviously loved it.

I secretly cheered last year when a student wrote a letter to the editor, singling out Danke for criticism when the assistant principal nixed efforts to stage a "silence for choice" demonstration at the school.

"What sort of anarchy would we have if leadership caved every time students threatened a demonstration?" I thought.

Another favorite Danke story was his approach to the dress code. He kept a large rack of belts in his office, a ready remedy for those students -- male and female -- who liked to make a fashion statement by wearing their pants precariously low. They'd be given the option of cinching up their drawers or head for home.

Danke had a playful side, too. He apparently loved to portray himself as something of a Luddite when it came to technology. When duty required him to confiscate a cell phone or IPod from someone violating school rules, he'd encourage the perpetrator to be sure to stop by his office and retrieve it when the school day ended.

"I've got a whole drawer full and I don't know how to work them anyway," he'd quip.

During Red Ribbon Week, Danke and partner Principal Mike Johnson took on the two strongest students at school in a tug of war. The principals won. If you'd seen Danke's build, you'd know why.

But he was reportedly a gentle giant. When it came time to break up a fight, Danke would simply extend his thick forearm and divide the combatants. No shouting, no bear hugs, just a decided show of authority when the situation required it.

A few weeks ago, I answered a Zogby poll that queried American parents about whether they consider their local schools places of safety for their kids.

I've heard plenty of tales from my kids about supposed threats of gun and knife violence, but I'm confident the River Falls school leadership has struck the right balance between public access and student safety. My responses that day were clearly shaped by what I knew about misters Johnson and Danke's policies.

Another lasting picture that I'll hold of Mr. Danke was one weeknight when I'd shucked my necktie, inhaled a quick dinner and dragged myself to the middle school to attend hunter education class with one of our kids. I'd been tempted to just do a drop off and head back home, but how would that look to my daughter? She'd worked all day as well.

It was a "field night" where each of 75 students had to go one-on-one with an instructor to clearly demonstrate they understood how to safely handle a firearm.

There was Mr. Danke in the cafeteria -- tie loosened but still encircling his neck -- quizzing a young boy on the various shooting positions. He was a hunter education instructor too.

I was ashamed of myself for selfishly wanting to be home, working in my shop.

Again, I never got to know Greg as well as I would have liked. I'm a loner and when free time comes my way, I'll choose a solo encounter with the chain saw or brush cutter in the woods over 18 holes of golf with a foursome or a trip to a Twins game with a gang of people.

The more involved you become in a community, the tougher it is to go "off duty" once in a while. I can't imagine what it must have been like for Greg and Cindi, both public figures.

At a parent-teacher conference a couple years back, Greg grew animated, telling me the technique he used to catch a nice mess of crappies through the ice while fishing the backwaters of the Mississippi River. His wife Cindi once mentioned the fun they all have each November with extended family, hunting and processing deer in Pepin County.

I remember thinking I should invite Greg to ice fish with us some Sunday afternoon, but never did.

When Greg had a free evening or weekend, I expect he savored stepping out of his very public role to spend time alone with his wife, his kids and nature too.

Selfishly, I'll miss him. He was a wonderful role model for my son and daughter and a fine example of a responsible parent for old guys like me.

I can't begin to know how empty those who were closer to him must feel right now.