Perry residents line street as body of Dan Marburger, who died saving students, comes home

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The hearse carrying Perry Principal Dan Marburger is welcomed by swaths of community members Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024, in Perry, IA. / El coche fúnebre que lleva al director de Perry Dan Marburger es recibido por franjas de miembros de la comunidad el martes 16 de enero de 2024, en Perry, IA.
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By Allison Ullmann and José Mendiola, Des Moines Register

The 8-degree cold didn’t matter Tuesday in Perry.

What mattered was that Dan Marburger was coming home.

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Bundled in Perry blue, friends, current and former students and other residents gathered in front of Perry High School and Caldwell Parrish Funeral Home to pay their respect to the slain principal as a hearse carried his body from the Des Moines hospital where he died early Sunday.

Hailed as a hero, Marburger suffered the wounds that 10 days later would claim his life when he tried to distract a troubled 17-year-old who entered the cafeteria armed with a pump-action shotgun and a small-caliber handgun. Dylan Butler also shot and killed 11-year-old Ahmir Jolliff and wounded four other students and two staff members before turning a gun on himself.

His motive in the shootings remains unexplained by authorities, and his parents have said they had no inkling of his intentions when they dropped him off at school.

It was breakfast time as the school prepared to resume classes Jan. 4 following the holiday break, and officials have said Marburger’s attempted intervention allowed many students to flee to safety.

So it was with a sense of both sadness and appreciation that hundreds lined the streets for the return of his body on Tuesday, holding signs in Perry’s blue-and-white colors. Some read “Perry Strong” while others had a large blue heart with Marburger’s name in the middle.

Among those braving the cold was Carlos Monzon, a Perry sophomore.

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“He was there to uplift you or any student no matter what they did. He loved every student,” he said. “Even if you did bad, he’d be there to offer support to be better.”

He said he had not been surprised to hear that Marburger, principal at Perry High for more than a quarter century, had attempted to save his students.

“Honestly, I knew he would do something like that,” he said. “He always put his school and his students’ safety above himself, which made him the man he was.”

Students recall Dan Marburger’s mentorship, support

Perry educators Gary Overla, left, and Brenda Mintun hold signs as they wait for the hearse bearing the body of Principal Dan Marburger Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024, in Perry.

Antonio Sanchez stood next to two of his daughters, one a seventh-grade student at Perry Middle School and one a 10th-grade student at Perry High.

“Everybody is sad. It’s impacted the community,” Sanchez said. “I don’t know how to explain, but it’s hard for everybody.”

His daughter, Coral, a sophomore at the high school, said she was shocked when she heard the news that Marburger had died Sunday after a 10-day fight for his life. She remembers seeing him often in the school hallways.

“One specific memory I have of him is one time we were doing little group presentations and he was listening in… as people were talking and he stayed for my presentation,” she said. “I felt a little proud that he, the principal, was watching me present. And then he said I did a very good job. That memory feels very special to me because he’s not here anymore.”

Many others had similar stories about Marburger’s support and mentorship. Jayson Chavez, a 2021 Perry High School graduate who stood with a group of Perry teachers and students in front of the high school, said he was devastated by the death of a man who was a family friend.

Community members mourn the loss of Perry High Principal Dan Marburger as his body is returned to town on Tuesday.

“When they were saying that Marburger was in critical condition, but he was still fighting, in my head I said, ‘Come on, big man. I know you can (pull through),’” Chavez said.

“Marburger has been there for me throughout my whole high school years,” Chavez said, adding that when he had academic trouble, the principal helped him through it and talked with his teachers

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After graduating from high school, Chavez said, he would go to Marburger’s office to chat when he was home from college.

“I’m definitely going to miss him because he’s been there for me since day one,” he said.

‘He wanted to see his students succeed’

Community members mourn Perry Principal Dan Marburger as the hearse carrying his body makes its way into town Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024, in Perry.

Julissa Calderon, a 2018 graduate of Perry High School, said Marburger was a kind and supportive leader of the community who truly believed in the potential of his students and always offered second chances.

Calderon, who was standing next to her brother, Aaron, a senior at Perry High, said Marburger pushed her brother to stay in school when he faced expulsion.

“Mr. Marburger gave him another chance because he wanted to see him graduate,” said Calderon, wiping tears from her eyes. “It means a lot. He wanted to see his students succeed. He wanted to see my brother succeed. I’m just so thankful for him.”

Her brother said Marburger was “very forgiving.”

“He was very kind,” he said. “He was always looking for the goodness in people, and I won’t forget him.”

Funeral arrangements set for Dan Marburger

Some of the crowd stayed for a while after the procession was over, holding each other. Some walked away with tears in their eyes.

The goodbyes will continue this week.

Caldwell Parrish Funeral Home announced Tuesday that visitation for Marburger is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday in the gymnasium at Perry Elementary School, 1600 Eighth St., with the family present from 2-7 p.m. The funeral service will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at Lutheran Church of Hope, 925 Jordan Creek Parkway, in West Des Moines. The service will be livestreamed at wdm.lutheranchurchofhope.org/specialevents 

Burial will be private at Violet Hill Cemetery in Perry. A celebration of life will be scheduled at a later date in Marburger’s native eastern Iowa.

About Dan Marburger’s career and family

Principal Dan Marburger speaks during the Perry High School graduation ceremony on Sunday, May 28, 2023. | El director Dan Marburger habla durante la ceremonia de graduación de Perry High School el domingo 28 de mayo de 2023.

A native of Sabula, Marburger was the son of Richard “Ike” and Carole Marburger. He attended East Central Community High School in Miles, then graduated from Central College in 1989 with a degree in education and played football there for Coach Ron Schipper.

Returning to East Central High, he taught social studies and computer skills and coached football, girls basketball and golf. His obituary says he was one of the youngest athletic directors in the state.

Earning a master’s in educational administration from Drake University, he became associate principal at Perry High School in 1995. In 1997, at the age of 30, he was promoted to principal, the role he held for the rest of his career.

His obituary said he presided over the implementation of numerous innovations at Perry High, including expansion of advanced placement courses and of college credit courses at Des Moines Area Community College, development of tutoring services, and programs aimed at helping at-risk students remain in school. He was named Iowa High School Athletic Directors Association Administrator of the Year in 2007.

Survivors include his wife, Elizabeth, their children, Hannah, Seth, Claire, Grace and Ainsley, four grandchildren, his parents and siblings Jeff, Ken, Dawn Burkholder, Angie McGhee and JoEllen Hall.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to a planned scholarship fund that will be named in his honor.

Perry schools remain closed

Perry schools have been closed since the shootings. The school board, meeting Monday, declined to set a reopening date after parents expressed concerns about security at the school.

Superintendent Clark Wicks said it was possible the board would meet again this week to consider when to resume classes.

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