Friends and colleagues found it nearly impossible to express all that Greg Danke meant to them, Meyer Middle School and the community.
They were obviously in disbelief over the 49-year-old middle school assistant principal's sudden death Friday night from an apparent heart attack. But even more, they said Danke had so many noble qualities that his far-reaching impact was hard to summarize.
Kim Wager, a 20-year-custodian at Meyer Middle School said, "I really don't know what to say. He was such a great guy. He didn't act like a typical administrator. He was so down-to-earth, ready to step in and help...He might offer to unlock the doors and handle visitors for an unscheduled event after school or just listen to you if you had a problem.
"That didn't mean he had all the solutions but he was there to listen. You could count on him for anything. He was a loving man. I'll miss him deeply."
The No. 1 quality repeated about Danke was his compassionate skill at handling 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds -- the prime age group at the school where he worked.
New Superintendent Tom Westerhaus only knew Danke for a short while, but he said Danke made clear his devotion for middle school kids.
Westerhaus said that age group can be a challenge to handle and that Danke -- in charge of discipline as the assistant principal -- was regarded as "...very steady and an anchor for the kids."
Diane Brady, middle school social studies teacher for 26 years, said kids that age are often referred to as "little bags of hormones" because of their up-and-down temperament and struggles to figure out their place in the world.
Brady said Danke was firm but not intimidating.
"For a student, being sent to the vice principal's office wasn't horrible, horrible, horrible or scary, scary, scary," she said. "He would listen to their side of the story, give them the benefit of the doubt, look for the good in them, yet he was stern and got the job done. Even though it was part of his job, he wasn't seen as a disciplinarian."
Brady said Danke was visible, often found in the corridors chatting and kidding with students.
Doug Rudesill, just retired as school-police liaison officer, worked so closely with Danke that he said their teamwork became instinctual. Still, he was at a loss for words about Danke's death, saying, "Where do I start?"
"Wow, he was a very good friend -- the complete package. There are so many different things you could say about Greg. I'm sure going to miss that guy."
Rudesill said Danke was never heavy-handed with students, even those who got into mischief.
"He had good things to say to them. On occasion he might have to take one down, but never to the bottom so that (the student) felt so terrible that he couldn't bounce back. He gave everyone hope to come back."
And Rudesill said Danke did discreet favors for students.
"I remember one time he reached into his own pocket to help out a student who couldn't afford to pay for class pictures," he said. "There were things like that he would just do on his own that aren't known."
Rudesill said Danke's passion for the job showed in the way he was the first one in the building at 6 a.m. and often the last to leave late in the afternoon.
Other than his work, Rudesill said that Danke loved roaming freely on his Harley motorcycle.
"He would just take off, travel and go somewhere on his bike," Rudesill said. "Weather permitting, he even drove the Harley to school."
Meyer Middle School Principal Mike Johnson replaced Danke as principal three years ago. Several years earlier Danke was named middle school principal after a district-wide shakeup of school administrators.
Danke agreed to take the top spot on the condition that he be allowed him to return to the assistant's job when circumstances changed.
Danke said his principal's role was more about budgets and curriculum, which was OK, but he missed his ties to students that the assistant's job called for.
"I lost my coach, our wing man," Johnson said Tuesday about Danke. "He was a great assistant and always loyal. He knew what needed to be done. We had attended some workshops this summer with staff and had some plans to set in motion this school year that we were really looking forward to."
Johnson agreed that Danke's handling of middle school students during tense situations was remarkable.
"Whether it was expulsions, suspensions, maybe a student cursing at him, he never became disrespectful or hollered back," Johnson said. "He reminded students when behavior was unacceptable but was a good sounding board for them. He could soothe them. Greg was helpful to all students, but especially to kids who needed it the most."
Johnson said Danke was known to employ a favorite saying when reminding students of decisions they faced: "Do the right thing."
Johnson said Danke's connection to youth extended to his own children -- ages 6, 4 and 1.
"When they visited me here they didn't run straight to Dad's office, but took a hard left first to visit Greg," he said. "It helped that he kept M&Ms in a corner, but he was there to give them hugs, high fives or put them in his lap. He made my kids feel like a million bucks. Now if he could do that for a one-year-old, imagine what he did for Meyer Middle School students?"
Eleven years younger, Johnson said Danke was like a sibling.
"With Greg it was almost like having the cool, big brother I never had," he said. "He had guns and hunted, he rode a motorcycle, he fished, he could fix stuff, he was funny, he had this great handshake. Greg was just a flat-out great guy.
"I'm jealous of people who knew him much longer but I know there are others who are jealous of me because I got to work so closely with him, even if it was for a short time."
Lynn Johnson, owner of Emma's Bar on Main Street, mourned the loss of his cherished hunting companion.
Back in the late 1970s, Johnson hired college-student Danke as a bartender.
"He became one of my very best friends and was a great, all-around guy," Johnson said. "He loved everything he did: Hunting, fishing, teaching, being a principal."
Johnson, Danke and others had a hunting trip set for fall. The group went on similar trips to South and North Dakota and Iowa. They hunted for pheasants, deer, turkey and ducks.
When asked what he'll miss most about Danke, Johnson said, "Oh, that would be an endless answer to give. There are just too many things to say."
Johnson said Danke was having a beer at Emma's Friday just hours before he died.
"I sat next to him. He was talking about a kid that he was trying to get back into school. Later he said he was going to head home to mow the lawn and then take it easy..."
Even when it came to hunting, local dentist David Page said Danke's youth connection was on display.
Page is director of the River Falls Hunter Safety Program for 11- and 12-year-old boys and girls. For years Danke was a volunteer instructor.
"Greg's big emphasis was on enlivening our presentation for our 6:30 p.m. classes," Page said. "He'd remind the other instructors that the kids had been in school all day, then maybe were doing after-school athletics before having supper and coming to hunter safety.
"We didn't want to come off as drill instructors or a bunch of ogres. The goal was to make it interesting and enjoyable so that this very serious responsibility could be passed along.
"He wanted to make it fun so that the kids in class would pay attention and not look out the window or talk on their cell phones."
Page had an organizational meeting last Wednesday with Danke about the next set of hunter safety classes.
"It felt like a kick in the stomach to find out what happened to him Friday," Page said, adding that Danke's enthusiasm, reliability and volunteer work ethic will be badly missed.
Middle school Health Aide Eileen Eggen said Danke's death was like losing "...her best buddy." The two usually got to school first in the morning.
"Our offices are close so we had this camaraderie, laughing and giggling about the news and just the craziest things," she said. "It was a fun way to start the day."
Like the others, Eggen said Danke's approach was "...first and foremost about the kids at Meyer Middle School."
"He always had their interests in heart. He was also kind and considerate toward the staff," Eggen said. "He put our needs before his.
She said Danke lived by two mottos, one in particular that reflected his zeal for students: "If it's for the kids, your time is never wasted."
Eggen said Danke was just as devoted at home, saying, "I've never known a man who had so much pride in his family -- his wife and two children."
Eggen said the middle school staff's cohesion and togetherness is due in large part to Danke.
"We're a unique group, and he helped pull that together. He was our glue."
Funeral services for Danke were Tuesday afternoon. A public visitation was held at the high school.
Danke, a 1983 graduate of UW-River Falls, is survived by his wife, Cindi Danke, River Falls Parks and Recreation coordinator; and two adult children, Zach, a 2004 RFHS graduate, and Hannah, a 2008 RFHS graduate.
Please see Greg Danke's obituary on C5 and also a column about Danke by Journal Publisher Steve Dzubay on A5.
"It is hard to believe -- we will miss you, Greg. My son got into innocent trouble at MMS and Greg was a champion who helped us and always had the best advice. Jeez, hard to believe. We won't forget you. I hope your family knows your great contribution to this town."
For more online story comments about Greg Danke such as the one above, please visit the Journal's Web site at www.riverfallsjournal.com.