A few weeks ago, Kennedy High School’s principal walked down the hallway as the sound of Rick Nees singing and playing acoustic guitar floated out of his classroom.
“That right there is what makes our school special,” Principal Jason Kline thought.
Nees, a longtime math teacher at the school, died on Thanksgiving in a car collision. His unexpected death created a somber feeling at Cedar Rapids Kennedy High on Monday, the first day students were back after the Thanksgiving holiday.
“The grief process isn’t something that anyone gets through in uniform fashion,” Kline said, noting the high school has extra supports in place for students this week.
Since Nees’ death on Thursday, students, alumni and staff have flooded social media with memories of him — sharing stories about Nees offering upset students homemade cookies, making silly faces on field trips and hearing the sound of his acoustic guitar echo down the hallways late into the afternoon.
“Mr. Nees always told me it was OK to be a little different,” one alum wrote on Facebook. “To love yourself and love others just as much. To take things seriously, but not too serious. To come together and decide what was actually important.”
“I still have the letters he wrote me when I left his classes and graduated high school,” another added. “As he was such an inspiration for me to always stay true to myself as he did.”
“He really did light up the room when he walked in,” another said.
Nees, 55, and his 38-year-old daughter, Nicole Nees, were killed in a car crash in Fort Collins, Colo., where his daughter lived.
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Their vehicle was struck by a stolen pickup truck that had been used in a pawnshop burglary, according to news releases. A suspect, 19-year-old Marcos Orozco, has been charged with second-degree burglary, vehicular eluding, aggravated motor vehicle theft and violation of bail bond conditions, according to the Fort Collins Police Department.
In a statement, Fort Collins police said an investigation into the circumstances of the fatal collision still is ongoing, “and additional charges are pending the outcome of the investigation.” The department did not respond to a Gazette request for additional information Monday.
With Nees’ family living out-of-state, there will not be a family-organized funeral or memorial for the teacher in the Cedar Rapids area.
Instead, Kennedy High School is organizing an open mic night at 6 p.m. Saturday in memory of Nees, who was known for his musical talent. The event is open to the public.
On students’ first day back since Nees’ death, staff tried to create “as normal a day as possible” for grieving students Monday, Principal Kline said in a message to the Cedar Rapids school’s community on Sunday evening.
Counselors, the school’s therapy dog, Phinney, and additional support staff were at school Monday morning and will remain available “as long as there is a need throughout the week,” according to Kline’s statement.
Nees’ classroom was staffed by other math teachers and support staff.
“This week will be challenging for everyone but we are blessed to have such an incredible school community, with support coming from everyone,” Kline said in the statement. “Every student will experience this differently, and the best thing parents can do is be there for your child.”
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