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The “Sydney Tree” stands about 4-feet tall near the corner of George and Susie Loofe’s living room, visibly leaning to the right.
Ornaments given in honor of their daughter, Sydney, are evenly placed on the pine branches, but a force greater than their weight pulls the Christmas tree closer to the window and toward the sun — or Sun Sydney, as they call it.
“I’ve bought the kids an ornament every year since they were born, so I bought her one this year, too,” Susie said, gently touching the golden angel-wing ornament. “Last year when she went missing, I had already bought her one, so the one this year is her memorial ornament.”
The inscription couldn’t be more fitting for Sydney’s parents — “You have left my life, but you will never leave my heart.”
Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of Sydney’s memorial service in Neligh. It was there family and friends released green balloons to the heavens with messages of love for Sydney. Memories like that are flooding back as anniversary dates filled the last three weeks.
Nov. 15 — the day Sydney went missing after a date in Wilber. Dec. 3 — the day her body was found in Clay County. Dec. 11 — her memorial service at Grace Lutheran Church in Neligh.
“It’s hard to go over it all again,” George admitted. “Facebook’s memories make it tough to see it and feel it all over, to see the pictures and see all of the memories again.”
“But it’s comforting to see all of the support,” Susie added. “We know we’re in a good community that shows a lot of love. I don’t want people to be afraid of bringing Sydney up. I want people to be willing to say her name and talk about her.”
The memories, even the tragic, heartbreaking ones, are wrapped in the arms of faith, family and community support. It’s that combination, especially faith and community, that are key to the Loofe’s survival.
“I swear that’s the only way we got through this,” Susie said. “I swear to you it’s because of the number of people who prayed for us and are still praying. I swear that’s why.”
On the day the Loofes drove to Lincoln to start searching for their 24-year-old daughter, there were 18 missing persons in Nebraska. Why did Sydney’s case make national headlines? What was different about Sydney?
George and Susie have a few theories, but mostly they feel the immediate connection to Sydney was friendship. Longtime educators, the Loofes are simply well-liked and well-known. George retired last spring after being named Principal of the Year, and Susie still teaches special education at Neligh-Oakdale.
It was a friend who first notified the family that Sydney was missing. When co-worker Terra Gehrig texted that Sydney missed her shift on Nov. 15 at the Menard’s in north Lincoln, Susie’s maternal instinct kicked in, and she wasted no time in contacting the Lincoln Police Department, who at that time could only offer a wellness check.
“I just knew something was wrong,” Susie said. “A 24-year-old doesn’t leave her car and her phone. Her lights were still on. She wouldn’t just leave her cat. I knew something was wrong.”
It was too late to drive to Lincoln on Wednesday night, so George and Susie left early Thursday morning and drove straight to the police department. Missing for just hours, the Loofes received their first wave of emotional support from close friends.
“By that time, I already had two calls from State Patrol friends — Brad Higgins and Roger Folkers. We weren’t even to Columbus yet, and they both called me,” George said. “That was huge to me. They offered a lot of insight and hopefulness.”
Through his days as a football coach, George made a connection with an officer at Lincoln PD. As the search turned to Wilber, George knew the principal there. Family members canvassed the state with missing person posters. Friends, including truckers, took the posters nationally, hanging them in convenience stores and truck stops.
Thousands of people shared the missing person posters online. Strangers connected with Sydney and started following her case. People asked if search parties were needed. Donations started pouring in online to help raise money for a private investigator.
“It’s amazing how fast it took off. People go missing all of the time. Why the interest in Sydney? I don’t know why her case is . . . ,” Susie said, voice trailing off while shaking her head.
On Sunday, Nov. 19 — just four days missing — about 250 people gathered in a horseshoe on Warrior Field in Neligh for a candlelight vigil as Grace Lutheran Church Pastor David Kuhfal led the prayer service. It was live streamed for the Loofes to watch at home. Afterward, Susie said the vigil was something she needed and much more calming than she had expected.
It gives Susie comfort to know that so many people immediately turned to God. Whenever anyone asked how they could help, she encouraged them to share the missing persons poster and to pray — pray for Sydney’s safe return.
“I know I would not have gotten through this without my faith,” Susie said. “I know that for a fact, along with the prayers. I have kept my sanity because of my faith and couldn’t have made it without it.”
Green became the flagship color of the Search For Sydney campaign, representing missing children awareness. The Fred and Linda Anderson family cut hundreds of green ribbons for people to tie around trees. Kimberly Grossnicklaus made pins for people to wear, including law enforcement.
Soon green lights were popping up all over the county. Lia and Craig Heckert, along with Margie Mortensen, started selling them as a fundraiser. Blackburn Manufacturing printed yard signs with Sydney’s photo. Momma Sands Bakery donated items to start an auction that eventually raised thousands of dollars. More items and more monetary donations followed.
George admits he didn’t know a lot about Facebook or social media prior to Sydney’s disappearance, but looking back at the memories, he’s reminded of how Antelope County — and other communities — helped in the search.
“Every community jumped in. Clearwater, Orchard, Creighton, Tilden, Plainview, O’Neill, Elgin, West Holt, Valentine,” he said. “There were more. They held benefits; they wore green. They all did things for Sydney.”
On Dec. 3, the Loofe family notified the Antelope County News that Sydney’s body had been found, confirming everyone’s fears. The community then put an even tighter grip on the Loofe family as more national media started seeking information. Law enforcement in uniform stood vigil outside Sydney’s memorial service and at the back of the church with plain clothes officers mixed in. Signs were posted prohibiting filming and photography. Privacy was the top priority.
Hundreds gathered at the Antelope County Ag Society building for fellowship after the service and to release the balloons for Sydney. The meal was catered, and the Loofes still have no idea who paid for it. Three families split the cost, but the Loofes don’t know who to thank.
“I’d never planned a funeral. I didn’t know what to do or how that worked,” Susie said. “But it was taken care of. Everything was taken care of for us, for Sydney.”
Susie and George continue to refuse to talk publicly about their daughter’s case. They regularly turn down most media requests and have declined documentaries, saying maybe after the trials, they’ll talk. Maybe.
But the Loofes haven’t shied away from working with the Set Me Free Project, an Omaha-based nonprofit organization focused on fighting sex trafficking through prevention education for youth and families. Law enforcement have said Sydney’s case was connected to Internet dating since one of the people charged in her death allegedly met her through the dating app, Tinder.
Jointly, the Set Me Free Project and the Loofes created the Sydney Loofe Scholarship, which will award $3,000 this spring to a high school graduate who plans to focus on countering human trafficking, online safety and cyber security.
“Even if it wasn’t trafficking (that led to Sydney’s death), the Set Me Free Project teaches safe Internet dating, and that definitely was something Sydney didn’t do. She didn’t use all of her senses in thinking about what she was doing when she went on this date,” Susie said.
A Dedication Of Love
Sydney loved animals and the outdoors. She and friends often visited the Henry Doorly Zoo, so it was no surprise when the Loofes sponsored two benches in Sydney’s name. Menards sponsors another bench at the zoo for Sydney.
“They drove us around the zoo showing us all of the available benches to sponsor,” George said. “We picked out the locations that are now in her name.”
A fourth bench was also sponsored in her name, but this one sits in Neligh along the Elkhorn River. On May 23 — the 141st anniversary of White Buffalo Girl’s death — the Ponca Tribe and people of Neligh again embraced to honor and mourn a daughter taken much too soon.
In 1877, White Buffalo Girl died as the Poncas walked the Trail of Tears. Her family asked the people of Neligh to look after their daughter. To this day, flowers are regularly taken to her grave in Laurel Hill Cemetery. The bench for Sydney was a way to continue that relationship.
As a thank you, the Loofes gave the Ponca Tribe two of Sydney’s crystals. One — an amethyst — was her favorite. The other — a rose quartz — means love, peace and the bond with family and friends. The box and its contents were presented privately to the Poncas just before the dedication.
“The bench was amazing and a perfect location,” Susie said. “It’s right at the curve of the river, so you can see the south and to the west. She would have loved that and thought it was a perfect spot. It’s just perfect.”
It’s sometimes hard to talk about Sydney because the wounds are so fresh for George and Susie, but “it would tear us up if we didn’t,” George said.
Slowly making it easier are the texts, messages and photos they receive from friends. Memories of Sydney and photos at the zoo are the most common.
“So many people go to the zoo and text me pictures, saying things like, ‘We’re at the zoo and found Sydney’s bench,’” Susie said grinning. “I just love that — I love that.”
Last month, Susie received a text from one of Sydney’s co-workers. It was about the way the sun shines into Menard’s, almost blinding them at times. That’s their reminder, she texted, that Sydney is still there watching over them.
They call it Sun Sydney, with her memory and presence still shining brightly on them all.
“That has been our little sign,” Susie said of the sun. “Now and then I have friends who will text me pictures of a sunrise or sunset as a reminder.”
With smartphones in their hands, George sits in his recliner scrolling through photos, with Sydney’s cat Mimzy on his lap. His long, trademark goatee can’t hide his smile as he stops occasionally to look at one a little longer.
Susie, on the sofa next to him, smiles as she reads texts from friends, occasionally chuckling and shaking her head before scrolling again.
“That’s what I like. I like when people still talk about her and aren’t afraid to bring it up because it’s going to make me sad,” Susie said, looking up from her phone. “Yeah, it’s going to make me sad, but it’s also going to comfort me.”