When Chad Boyer first heard the tornado warning five years ago, he did what every other Nebraskan does upon hearing about a tornado. He looked out the window.
“Our first instinct is to see where (the tornado) is and what’s going on,” he said. “... I think there was still a little bit of, ‘It’s not going to do much damage.’ Almost that denial of, that just doesn’t happen.”
Boyer — a native Nebraskan who had grown up around countless tornado watches and warnings that never materialized into anything serious — would soon realize that this event would be very different.
Boyer, the superintendent of Wisner-Pilger Public Schools, was sitting in his main office with the high school principal at the time, Chris Uttecht. After they saw two tornadoes spinning to the west, the gravity of the situation became much more real.
“It was at that point it became very, very real — not only was it likely destroying (Pilger) but heading toward Wisner as well,” he said.
With all the devastation they caused, the Pilger area tornadoes have knit the Wisner-Pilger school district even closer together and highlighted the strength of the community, Boyer said.
But rebuilding took years.
As he surveyed the situation on June 16, 2014, Boyer was immediately struck by a sense of obligation toward the district’s students; plus, he was concerned about his own home near Pilger.
“I had two very distinct emotions; one was on the professional side of things. We had kids and staff members that live in and around Pilger that we immediately started to think of, and obviously our middle school fifth and sixth grade was in the direct path of that storm,” he said. “On the personal side, I live a mile south of Pilger, and the track of that storm went about 200 yards from my house.”
After Boyer checked on his own house and found minimal damage there, he led efforts to prepare the high school to be home base for the Red Cross and the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency recovery and relief efforts.
The gymnasium and cafeteria served as a place to provide about 50 tornado-struck locals with food and water, while also offering a place for them to rest their heads overnight.
But one of Boyer’s proudest moments through the situation was that the handful of cots set up went unused.
“This is what I love about Nebraska and our small communities: There was not one person that stayed the night,” he said. “That’s because some family, association, friend, neighbor came in and said, ‘You don’t need to stay the night. You come with me.’
“That just did my heart good as a Nebraskan.”
Wisner-Pilger Public Schools continued to provide a base of operations for the Red Cross for the next two or three days, and NEMA for about 10 days, Boyer said.
The school facilities also sustained damage. A tornado ripped into 2½ stories on the east side of the three-story middle school in Pilger. A grain bin on the east side of the building also was destroyed.
“We quickly knew it was going to be a condemned building,” Boyer said. “We would not be able to piece that back together.”
At least four families north and west of Wisner who had ties to Wisner-Pilger Public Schools lost their homes from the event, he said, causing at least two families to start “from the ground up.”
Immediately, administrators set to work to make sure the 2014-15 school year would start on time. They took 10 to 14 days for cleanup and set up modular buildings for the fifth- and sixth-grade students.
“Our big thing was that we were not going to disrupt anyone’s lives. We wanted as much routine as we could possibly get,” he said. “Kids, families, the community needed the school to continue with activities, start school on time, so we could head back in to some level of normalcy.”
Once the school year kicked off, the administrative team and board of education started discussing plans for a more permanent facility. Among the four different options, they decided to move forward with combining the Wisner and Pilger school facilities to create one school building in Wisner for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
The school that was in Pilger was built in 1909, and it had a lot of significance to the community, Boyer said. The school’s leadership team tried to address this as it moved forward with plans for the new building.
“It was a beautiful old building and it served so many kids … moving that over was a very emotional piece. That was a piece our stakeholders in our communities had ties to,” he said. “We recognized that, and I think our board of education tried to do the best we could to move beyond emotion and work with facts, and what would allow our school district to be the most efficient and effective when instructing our kids.”
In February 2015, it was decided to move forward with combining the schools, breaking ground that fall and starting classes in the new elementary building in August 2017. The 54,000-square-foot elementary school connects with the junior and senior high, providing more connection with the entire school district, Boyer said.
“It gives a great sense of a community school. It just gives you that sense of everybody knowing everyone,” he said. “... Probably the highest compliment anybody could ever give (is) whether or not you’d send your own kids there; I’m proud to have my two kids attend.”
Through the entire process of rebuilding and moving to a singular campus, only about one or two students left the district, he said. He attributes this level of retention to the neighbors-helping-neighbors mentality in Wisner and Pilger.
“Again, because our neighbors — opening up their homes and helping people find their homes or rent — people came together and that was very significant,” he said.
Wisner-Pilger Public Schools has an enrollment of about 450 students. Boyer said there’s been a slight decline overall, similar to enrollment of rural schools across the state. Yet with the new, unified campus, he said the district provides a solid education, as well as community support for area students.
“What we believe is we have built a building and a campus that is going to make this school district viable for the next 50 years and beyond,” he said. “Because we really believe that we’ve not only got the perfect physical structure, but we’ve got the best staff and the best community to support our schools.”
As Boyer looks back on the day five years ago that forever changed the Wisner-Pilger district, his biggest takeaway was that he has a renewed faith in the human spirit.
The tornadoes have irrevocably altered the school district. But as Boyer looks back on that life-changing day five years ago and the aftermath, he said his biggest takeaway was the outpouring of help. He saw people pitching in to clean up, donating money and inviting neighbors who lost homes to stay with them.
“Following some of the worst tragedies that I’ve ever seen in my 45 years of life, what I saw immediately following that … it gives you this wonderful sense of how good people are,” he said, “how good we have it in Nebraska and in the Midwest because I just think that’s what we do.”