- Associated Press - Saturday, December 3, 2016

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Neb. (AP) - Dick Leeper really hates to miss school.

The 82-year-old has walked through the doors of Council Bluffs’ Roosevelt Elementary almost every school day for 16 years. While his friends are enjoying retirement on the golf course, Leeper is ambling down the school hallways with a smile. He gets hugs and fields morning greetings from the children and staff as he makes his way to Anne Brooks’ fourth-grade classroom.

He comes before 8 a.m. - he wants to be there when the kids arrive - and rarely leaves before noon. Officially, he’s there to help Brooks’ students with reading and math. Unofficially, he’s also there to brighten their days and do everything he can to be a positive influence.

Each student gets a squeeze on a shoulder or a pat on the back - Leeper pays attention to what each child is comfortable with. Every morning, each youngster picks a book to read with “Grandpa Leeper.” When they aren’t reading together, Leeper and the children work on math and spelling.

The kids ask: Will you read with me today? Will you come help me with math?

“You can’t help but love them,” he said. “Some of them call me ‘Grandpa.’ And that’s good. They are kind of like my own grandchildren in a lot of ways.”

Brooks and the entire school are thankful for Grandpa Leeper. Roosevelt enrolls children from a nearby homeless shelter; 63 percent of students are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch.

“Many students know Mr. Leeper as a permanent fixture here at Roosevelt,” Brooks said. “I’m not sure that they understand that he is a volunteer.”

The Omaha World-Herald (https://bit.ly/2faNPkr ) reports Leeper, a Council Bluffs native, graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1952. He served as a cryptographer in the U.S. Army during the Cold War and was stationed in Stuttgart, Germany. Upon returning to the United States, he became a traveling salesman for a dairy equipment supplier. He met his wife, Carol, at First Christian Church in Council Bluffs; they married in 1967. Eventually he would go to work, again as a traveling salesman for what later became Stanley Bostitch, selling industrial nailing and stapling equipment.

The couple had two daughters, and Leeper changed his schedule so he could be home with his family most nights. Helping his girls with reading was important.

“I read to them every night as little children. I loved to do that,” he said. “A child is interested in so many things because everything is new to them, and I enjoyed being with them. As they grew older, we read together every night at the kitchen table with a nighttime snack.”

After more than 35 years in sales, Leeper retired in the spring of 2000. But he was unsure how he would spend his days. When a member of his church said Roosevelt needed volunteers, he offered to help.

“Her mouth kind of dropped open, because it’s really hard to get volunteers at a school,” he recalled.

Leeper said the students’ needs go beyond poverty. He recalled a time when he was helping a girl with a writing assignment. He suggested she write about her family.

“I’m not supposed to talk about my family,” said the teary-eyed youngster.

Leeper told her he would pray for her every day. A couple of weeks later, she asked if he was praying for her. Yes, he said.

“I thought so,” she said, “because things are a lot better.’ “

During his first year, Leeper asked Brooks lots of questions. In time, the questions became fewer and he developed a routine. Now the second- through fifth-grade students recognize him right away, while the kindergartners and first-graders are still getting to know Grandpa Leeper.

Leeper’s face reflects his joy as he talks about the boy who asked if he knew Teddy Roosevelt and the girl whose family invited him to dinner because he gave her a present - a Bible, given with the mother’s permission.

Then there are the stories he struggles to tell. Stories that cause him to pause midsentence to collect himself. Stories of children who were victims of abuse, neglect and homelessness - situations volunteers aren’t always trained to deal with.

“You don’t always deal with it because you don’t always know how,” he said. “One day, a little girl in class, a good student, she just came up to me and laid her head on my shoulder and cried and cried and cried. All you can do is just love them … and try to understand.”

Leeper cheers on his students at weekend sporting events and has volunteered at summer school. He has bought new shoes, coats, socks and other essentials. He buys Rice Krispies bars for the kids and keeps peppermints on hand for sore throats and upset tummies.

Ruby Morales, a Thomas Jefferson High School senior, was a second-grader when she met Leeper. Even though he wasn’t a teacher, he taught her important lessons.

“He helped shape me into a better student. I (learned) what work ethic was from him,” she said. “He would motivate us by telling us we were getting better at reading or that we needed to set reading goals. He let me know I can get better at something if I try.”

Morales, 17, said had it not been for Leeper, she may have never learned to play an instrument.

“We were reading a Junie B. Jones book, and I was pointing at the words with my fingers,” Morales said. “He said, ‘Wow, do you play an instrument?’ I said no. He said that was something I should really look into. And soon enough I started playing the flute.”

Thomas Jefferson junior Cassy Higgins, 16, also has fond memories of Leeper “always being there.”

“Between him and Mrs. Brooks, I remember always feeling very supported and welcome,” she said.

Last year, Leeper was given the Iowa Governor’s Volunteer Award. In 2014, he was named Volunteer of the Year by the Council Bluffs school district. Superintendent Martha Bruckner said volunteers like Leeper are special.

“Just think, here is a community member who could be doing anything he wanted to do, but he is here in this classroom day after day because he cares about students, genuinely likes them, and wants them to have the brightest tomorrow possible,” she said. “That’s pretty amazing.”

___

Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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