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Jan. 21, 2024 |  By: AP

Mourners fill church to remember the Iowa principal who risked life to save kids in school shooting

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The longtime Iowa principal who risked his life to save students during a shooting earlier this month was remembered Saturday not just for his heroic actions that day but for the unconditional love and compassion he showed his family and students during his years at Perry High School.

Mourners filled the Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines just over 30 miles (48 kilometers) away from where Dan Marburger had worked since 1995 and been principal since 1997. He died on Jan. 14 in the hospital ten days after the shooting.

Marburger, 56, was critically injured during the Jan. 4 attack, which began in the joint middle and high school’s cafeteria as students were gathering for breakfast before class. An 11-year-old sixth grader was killed in the shooting, and six other people were injured. The 17-year-old student who opened fire also died of a self-inflicted gunshot.

Investigators said after the shooting that Marburger “acted selflessly and placed himself in harm’s way in an apparent effort to protect his students.” Perry Superintendent Clark Wicks said Marburger was a “hero” who intervened with the teenage gunman so students could escape.

Marburger’s daughter, Claire Marburger, said Dan’s five kids “never had to question if dad cares or was thinking of us.” She said he would always show his love through his presence at every one of their events and his compassion.

And even when he couldn’t be there every day after his kids went to college, Marburger would often Venmo them a few dollars so they could eat outside the cafeteria or top off their tank of gas. But he also still tried to be there — regularly driving 3.5 hours each way on a school night to watch Claire Marburger play basketball in college.

“If I had a genie with one wish, it wouldn’t be a new car or a house or a dollar amount. It wouldn’t even have to be to have dad back because I know that’s a big wish,” Claire Marburger said as she choked up at the funeral. “My wish would be for one of dad’s hugs — just a couple seconds to hold him. And he hold me to kiss me on the top of my head and tell me he was proud of me.”

Hundreds of community members gathered for a candlelight prayer vigil Thursday evening at a park where hours earlier, students had been dropped off to reunite with their families after the shooting. (Jan.4) (AP video by Nicholas Ingram)

Elizabeth Marburger said she got to experience Dan’s unconditional love for 43 years since they first fell in love during the eighth grade, but it still wasn’t enough.

“He modeled love and grace every day. My wish for all of you is to have someone — a parent, a partner, a friend, a sibling — who will love you unconditionally like Dan did for me,” Elizabeth Marburger said. “And my other challenge to you is to see the good in the world. This that we’ve lived the last couple weeks has been the rotten. But the good is out there and every day we have to look for the good.”

That has been evident in the way the Perry community came together after the shooting to support everyone who was hurting and raise money to help all the victims. Residents even arranged to make meals for the gunman’s family as they mourn the loss of a son in a violent act that his parents said they never saw coming.

Authorities have said the suspect, identified as Dylan Butler, had a pump-action shotgun and a small-caliber handgun with him when he came out of the bathroom where he posted an ominous picture to TikTok that morning and began shooting. He also had some kind of improvised explosive device with him that had to be disarmed.

The town of about 8,000 people had to say goodbye to Ahmir Jolliff several days before Marburger died in the hospital. But they have been able to celebrate the fact that everyone else who was wounded in the shooting is now recovering at home.

Yet life is far from normal in Perry with the kids still out of school. The district has announced plans to gradually bring students back starting with the elementary school on Wednesday and middle school on Thursday. High school students won’t return to class until the middle of the following week.

The school district plans to restrict access to its buildings more and have uniformed police officers there when they reopen but won’t take more significant measures that some have called for like installing metal detectors or requiring students to carry clear plastic bags. So many parents — particularly in the families of the students who were wounded — remain uneasy about sending their kids back.

The investigation into what drove Butler to bring guns to his school and open fire remains ongoing with investigators reviewing all his social media posts and reviewing evidence from the shooting and hours of witness testimony.