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GALLAGHER: Okoboji comforts grieving Royals in delayed homecoming date

September 19, 2018
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An arrangement of flowers to remember Natalee Henke occupies a spot among Henke's fellow MMCRU High School football cheerleaders in a game at Milford, of Okoboji, High School in Milford, Iowa, on Monday evening.

MILFORD, Iowa -- A traditional Friday night homecoming football clash played out on Monday evening, as one school showed care and support for a foe in the throes of grief.

Students, teachers and community members around Marcus, Meriden, Cleghorn and Remsen were stunned and saddened last Monday when popular MMCRU senior Natalee Henke collapsed at the school and later died, the result of a blood clot in her lungs. Students across Northwest Iowa reacted by sending care packages to the high school in Marcus, Iowa. Several area volleyball teams and fan sections donned the color of blue, the MMCRU school color, as they cheered for their squads.

Students and teachers at Okoboji High School in Milford, Iowa, went above and beyond when they postponed their homecoming football game from Friday to Monday. Additionally, Okoboji cheerleaders presented cheerleaders from MMCRU with a flower arrangement and Christmas ornaments, their salute to Henke, a football cheerleader, prior to kick-off on Monday.

Okoboji cheerleaders then passed blue buckets through the home crowd as the second quarter commenced. Fans who reside 75 miles from Marcus dug deep and gave $2,202 to help plant seeds for a scholarship to be established in Henke’s memory. Most of those fans, by the way, eschewed wearing their traditional maroon color for the Pioneers, opting instead to come to the game sporting “Royal” blue.

“We can do so little to help them as they’re grieving,” said Okoboji High School cheer sponsor Ada DeGraaf as she nodded to the MMCRU sideline. “But, maybe we can give something back.”

DeGraaf helped create Christmas ornaments her cheerleaders presented at midfield to the MMCRU cheer squad. Each MMCRU cheerleader and the cheer sponsors, in addition to Tracee Henke, Natalee’s mother, received a Christmas ornament in Natalee’s memory. “My guardian angel wears a bow,” the ornaments read.

“We didn’t even think twice about having the game on Monday,” DeGraff continued. “We didn’t want to have a game when the MMCRU community is grieving. Their cheer squad probably wouldn’t even have been here if we played Friday night.”

“It was the right thing to do,” said Molly Mulhern, a senior cheerleader at Okoboji High. “Everyone over there was hurting.”

The visitation for Henke took place Friday afternoon and early Friday evening at MMCRU High School in Marcus. The funeral service followed on Saturday.

MMCRU cheerleader Courtney Miller, a senior classmate of Henke’s, said football was the last thing on her mind -- and that of her classmates -- last week. Miller mustered all the strength she could in speaking at the visitation on Friday, informing a packed gymnasium about keeping plans she made for the 2019 softball season with Henke, the only other senior on the squad. “We’re putting cups in the fence that show Natalee’s number and my number,” Miller said. “And we had decided our team t-shirts would be tie-dye, which I don’t think they’ve ever been.”

The tie-dye concept, she said, speaks to the out-of-the-box thinking, a maverick streak, she and Henke shared.

“We’ll have all our names on the shirt, including Natalee’s,” Miller said.

Miller said she and her fellow cheerleaders were moved with gratitude at the start of the Okoboji game on Monday, one the Pioneers won, 61-7. “We know it was their (Okoboji) homecoming and we’re beyond grateful what they’ve done for us, considering the circumstances,” she said.

She listened as it was announced that fans had raised more than $2,200 for a scholarship in Henke’s name. Miller nodded and smiled, drawing strength from her old friend as well as hundreds of new friends that collectively wrapped their arms around students at MMCRU.

“I feel Natalee’s presence here,” she said. “She is with us at each practice and game. She’d want us to be playing, to be cheering our hearts out, working to the fullest of our abilities.”

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