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With dozens of candygrams scattered across his desk, George Loofe beamed as he read them one by one.
“There have been kids coming in all day. Every class brought something in,” he said with a grin, stretching his legendary horseshoe-shaped mustache. “I’m pretty sure this was more teacher-generated than student-generated, but it’s still nice to know the teachers support me.”
By the end of Monday, Loofe’s desk was piled high with about four dozen candygrams and messages.
Loofe was caught off guard last Friday when he was named Principal of the Year by the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association (NRCSA). Sitting at the front table, Loofe said he didn’t know he was about to receive the prestigious award “until they said health issues and tragedy. I looked at Jay (Bellar) and I knew that he knew.”
It was a big day for “the Walthill boys,” as Loofe’s wife, Susie, referred to them. While Loofe was Principal of the Year, Jay Bellar of Battle Creek was named top superintendent. Just a year apart at Walthill High School, it was only fitting that the friends were honored at the same time.
“We’re best buds,” Loofe said. “He was best man in our wedding. We played ball together and lived together in college. This was great.”
Loofe instantly broke into a grin and chuckled when talking about the good ole days. But accepting the award, Loofe struggled to speak. His wife and their children, Levi and MacKenzie, surprised him by joining him on the stage.
“I was a little choked up,” he said. “Between thinking about what they’d said about our tragedy, then seeing my kids and wife, I couldn’t say much.”
In his 24th year as an administrator — 18th at Neligh-Oakdale — Loofe suffered a heart attack just days before the fall semester began.
“I had valve work done on Monday and was back to work Wednesday,” Loofe said matter-of-factly.
He was also immediately back on the sidelines as an assistant for the Warrior football team, his fifth season with Ron Beacom and 21st overall. Loofe was a head football coach for 16 years and coached basketball for 12. He has nearly 100 head coaching wins to his credit in both sports.
A couple of weeks after the 2018 football season ended, life flipped upside down for the Loofe family. They discovered their oldest daughter, Sydney, was missing. Within days, the entire Midwest knew her name and joined in the search for the 24-year-old. Soon after, the nation began looking for her, thanks to coverage by People magazine, Good Morning America and countless other national media sources.
On Dec. 4, the Loofe family received devastating news confirming Sydney’s death. Friends and family gathered to celebrate her life on Dec. 11. Hundreds of educators from across the state attended the memorial service, offering support to the Loofe family. That support continued at last week’s NRCSA conference.
“I think everyone at the conference this week came up and offered their condolences. Even the commissioner of education called me by first name and offered his condolences,” Loofe said, shaking his head.
Loofe has always been a private person. He’s been the Region III Principal of the Year four times and will be recognized next month for a distinguished service award for longevity. He said “if it wasn’t for Facebook,” he could have kept the NRCSA Principal of the Year award a secret.
But, still, Loofe admitted his rollercoaster year impacted how he felt about receiving this honor.
“I have a lot of respect for these people and this award in general,” Loofe said. “I’ve watched a lot of good people win this award. But the year that I’ve had has changed my perspective on things. I tried to come to work every day and if there was something broke, try to fix it. Now those broken things don’t seem quite as important to that bigger picture.”
Even during the search for his daughter, Loofe said he tried hard to smile in the school hallways. Often seen wearing a green ribbon or pullover, the color for missing and exploited children, he’d smile at every student as they walked by.
“It doesn’t matter how bad you’re hurting,” Loofe said. “You still have to have that smile on your face, even when you go to work and interact with people. Nobody wants to be around someone frowning all of the time. That’s no fun.”
He added, “Life is full of adversity. I learned that at a young age. It’s how you deal with it that determines your character.”