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Thursday, Mar. 13, 2014

St. Thomas Aquinas surprises teacher with loud, warm send-off for Afghanistan deployment

Special to The Star

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Hundreds of students at St. Thomas Aquinas High School managed to keep a secret this week.

Leo Brown had no clue what was going on.

The religion teacher was unaware that the rest of the school was preparing a big surprise for him as he sat preoccupied in his classroom Tuesday afternoon.

Excited teenagers scurried down the hallways, lining up against the walls. Faculty members clutched flags and patriotic balloons and pompoms.

Suddenly, the hallway grew quiet, with only the murmur of hushed whispers and giggles barely audible through the packed corridors.

A staff member casually stopped by Brown’s classroom to say he needed to sign something at the president’s office.

Brown walked out the door, turned the corner and then his jaw dropped.

A deafening roar erupted immediately as he walked forward.

Students cheered and chanted, “USA!” while others held up cell phones, eager to catch priceless footage of the beloved teacher’s stunned reaction to his send-off.

Brown, an Air Force reservist, is being deployed to Afghanistan this month with the 442nd Fighter Wing. This was his last week in the classroom before he reports for duty at the Whiteman Air Force Base.

“As I was walking down the hallways and kids were high-fiving me from both sides, it made me think that this is what it’s like going to heaven,” Brown said with a smile. “It’s overwhelming to see how much love there is in this community and to be the object of it today is incredibly humbling. It’s one thing to hear about the support for our troops, but to receive that support in person makes it come alive.”

He laughed and admitted he was shocked that the entire school managed to keep the celebration a surprise from him.

He’s not alone.

William Ford, the president of St. Thomas Aquinas, was a little worried news of the festivities would reach Brown. So he was pleasantly surprised when it all came off without a hitch. The secret? A massive network of email among teachers. Plus, students genuinely wanted to see Brown surprised.

“We’ve never had a teacher be on active duty in the 16 years I’ve been here,” Ford said. “It was really important for us to show our support and have him know we’ll be thinking of him every day he’s out there. We’re excited for him, but also sad to see him go.”

The enthusiasm for the send-off sprang from Brown’s popularity.

“Kids love him,” Ford said. “There is no kid in this school who is a stranger to him.”

As Brown made his way through the building Tuesday afternoon, he was brought to the middle of the commons area, where the school band and choir waited.

He was serenaded with “America, the Beautiful,” the Air Force fight song and the school’s alma mater.

“I’m honored to know Mr. Brown and I’m very proud he’s serving our country,” said the Rev. Dan Schmitz, the priest who held a blessing for Brown during the ceremony. “This celebration is a class act and something he’ll hopefully take with him overseas.”

His sentiments were echoed by students in the crowd.

Senior Taylor Clement wiped tears from her eyes as she swayed back and forth with her classmates during the alma mater. The 17-year-old was once a student in Brown’s freshman theology class and is a peer mentor in one of his classes this semester.

“He’s a great teacher and one of the most caring guys in the world,” Clement said. “This send-off is awesome, just so great. He’s not only dedicated to our country, but to our school, and for that he deserves all of this and more.”

Even students who didn’t have a class with Brown will miss him, like Spencer Gochis.

The senior sang in the choir during the ceremony and said he regrets never having taken a class with the man so many students adore. But the Overland Park teen empathized with Brown in a way not many other students could.

“My dad is a captain in the Navy Reserves and when I was really little, he went to Iraq for seven months,” he said. “So I know this time is rough and I’m praying for Mr. Brown’s family.”

Brown, a senior master sergeant, will report to his unit over the weekend and fly to Afghanistan later.

He expects to come back home in October and resume his educational duties at St. Thomas Aquinas in January.

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