Five stockings hang neatly in the Metschke living room on the east wall, just to the left of their Christmas tree. Nate and Darcy Metschke celebrated the holiday early with their children this year.
Christmas Eve was supposed to be the beginning of Nate’s recuperation after surgery to remove a portion of his liver infected with cancer. But complications ensued and the 40-year-old Neligh-Oakdale band instructor never made it out of surgery, leaving behind his wife, Darcy, and their three children — Madison, 9; Benson, 7; and Ansley, who will turn 2 in February.
When news broke around 6:45 p.m. Christmas Eve that a miracle was needed and another surgeon was called into the operating room, social media exploded with a prayer chain with posts from hundreds of people pleading to save Nate. Church services throughout Antelope County responded, asking for prayers. Shortly after, Nate succumbed to his second bout with cancer.
“My world is turned upside down right now, but I know you’re all there for all of us, and I know you’re all hurting too because Nate was just that guy that loved everyone and brought joy to everyone he knew and even those he didn’t,” Darcy wrote on Facebook later Christmas Eve. “I know he wouldn’t want everyone to be sad right now. He’d probably tell a pun just to make everyone smile. He’d just want you to share joy with others and share the love of our Lord and Savior.”
Students, parents, co-workers, friends, family, community members and even strangers wasted little time acknowledging the heartbreak felt with his death as profile photos were immediately changed to images with Nate, including senior Cole Belitz, who was in the annual senior band Christmas photo with him just two weeks ago.
“Goodbye to one of my best friends. God needed a band director, and he just got the greatest one of all. Such a caring, humble, kind-hearted individual unlike anyone else. You will be missed by all, without a doubt. Keep an eye on us and make sure we stay in tune,” Belitz wrote.
Neligh-Oakdale alumni were also overcome with grief. Melissa Doerr, who graduate in 2012, referenced not only Nate’s love for puns, but also his positive attitude and influence.
“The world will miss your terrible jokes and constant encouragement,” wrote Melissa Doerr. “I am in such disbelief this could happen to one of the kindest and most generous humans. Thank you for pushing me to be a first chair kid and believing in every student you taught. You will always be first chair in our hearts Nate Metschke.”
Nate, a 1997 graduate of Chambers High School and 2001 graduate of Midland Lutheran College, spent his entire teaching career at Neligh-Oakdale. In fall 2016, Darcy joined her husband and began teaching fourth-grade at the school, having spent years teaching the same grade with the nearby Nebraska Unified School district.
On Christmas afternoon, Neligh-Oakdale opened its doors to students, faculty and alumni, inviting them to the school to offer support and share stories.
“I am devastated,” said retired Neligh-Oakdale superintendent Glen Morgan. “As I stated several years ago, Nate was the best hire I made in 32 years as a school administrator. His rapport with both kids and staff was fantastic. Look what he did for the music programs at Neligh-Oakdale, as well as through out the state. My heart goes out to Darcy, kids, family and the entire school/community."
On Feb. 22, 2017, Nate had his first surgery for colon cancer. It was one week exactly after the birth of their third child, Ansley. Within days of surgery, Nate asked the Antelope County News to share his story in hopes of spreading awareness.
“If I had one do-over — just one thing — it would be to go to the doctor sooner,” Nate said at the time. “I should have gone six months earlier. I had symptoms, but I thought I was invincible. We say teenagers think they’re invincible, but so do 30-40-year-old men.”
Having cancer didn’t deter Metschke; it almost gave him more life. He dedicated even more time to his family, to his faith and to his students.
“I thought I was really close with my students before I had colon cancer. But now I realize how close I am with them,” he said. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t see the caring and concern from them.”
That’s why it was so important that his students were there beside him ringing the victory bell on Aug. 25, 2017. After the fall pep rally, Nate and hundreds of students gathered around the Warrior bell at the front of the building and rang it proudly.
The online video went viral and shows Madison running to her father, arms open with a hug proving just how magical the moment was and how difficult the battle has been for the family.
Madison and Benson had a chemo countdown, but they didn’t really know how much of a fight their daddy was going through. The shirts said to “Fight Like A Warrior,” and he had a battle on his hands.
“I tried not to talk too much about it at home because I didn’t want to scare my kids. I know they know the word chemo and we had the countdown at home, but I truly hope they don’t really understand everything,” he said.
A year to the day that Nate was told he was cancer-free, he received word that doctors found a mass on his liver. He detailed the plan for testing and scheduling chemotherapy and surgery. But like before, he was positive.
“I’m gonna fight hard,” he said.
Close friends started planning a benefit in October, and it quickly exploded to one of the largest the area had ever seen with more than 1,000 people attending. The tears flowed from Nate and Darcy as they tried to thank people.
“We’re just blown away by the community support. We’re going to win this,” Nate said.
“I’m overwhelmed with gratefulness. I’m speechless; it’s wonderful,” added a tearful Darcy. “All of the prayers, we can definitely feel them. Please keep them coming because we can definitely use them.”
Wanting to take as little time off from teaching as possible, Nate scheduled surgery to remove the mass on Christmas Eve.
“I just want to get back to the kids,” he said over and over. “We’re going to do this Dec. 24. That’s just the way it’s going to be.”
Always one to grab a selfie with students, whether it was the annual graduation group shot in the band room or at an event, Nate’s last social media post was an image with his best friend, Darcy, just before heading back to surgery.
“Got my cool clothes on! Next time I take a picture I won’t have cancer in my liver! Thanks to all my family and friends for the prayers and for being there for us,” Nate shared on Facebook and Twitter.
Visitation will begin at 3 p.m. Friday, Dec. 28, in the Neligh-Oakdale gymnasium. A celebration of life will follow at 6:30 p.m.. Burial will be at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 29, at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Neligh.
A memory book is being put together for Nate Metschke's children to ensure they have these stories when they are older. To contribute, email a story or photo of Nate to firstname.lastname@example.org. The stories will not be posted online. They are specifically for his children and family to have as memories.
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