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Principal Tim Christensen remembered fondly across ‘Dragon Land’

ADRIAN -- The communities of Adrian, Luverne and others around the region were dealt a blow Sunday when Adrian Middle School and High School Principal Tim Christensen, 52, of Luverne, died in his home.

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Tim Christensen speaks at the 2016 graduation ceremony at Adrian High School. (Special to the Daily Globe)

ADRIAN - The communities of Adrian, Luverne and others around the region were dealt a blow Sunday when Adrian Middle School and High School Principal Tim Christensen, 52, of Luverne, died in his home.

One of the first to hear the news, District 511 Superintendent Roger Graff had the grim duty of calling many of the school’s employees, who would get the word out further to those who needed to know.

“It was a sudden shock to all of us,” Graff said. “We had no forewarning.”

Adrian Middle-High School Secretary Kim Grussing worked closely with Christensen during his 10 years at the school. She got the call Sunday while at a softball game.

“You’re just in shock,” she said. “Like everybody, I thought it can’t be true … it always happens to somebody else, it doesn’t happen to the people you know.”

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Jason Berghorst, a social studies teacher in his 11th year at Adrian, couldn’t help but think of the personal and professional impact Christensen’s passing would have on area communities.

“I was driving and when I heard the news, I had to pull myself over for half an hour,” he said. “It was very unexpected, and the size of the news was so stunning because of the impact it was going to have. I was personally losing a friend, and for our school and our community, the ripple effect was going to be very large, through multiple towns.”

Christensen’s influence was far-reaching, as he seemed to make friends wherever he went.

In 1997, he began his first job in education, teaching fourth-graders at Luverne Elementary School as well as coaching ninth-grade baseball and basketball.

Kids called him “Mr. C.” As a teacher, he was known for his special techniques to get kids to pay attention, such as performing a headstand in the middle of class until his face became red.

In 2005, he took over as principal at Russell-Tyler-Ruthton Schools. Two years later, he became principal at Adrian High School and Middle School.

“We’ve had a lot of support from neighboring communities, even from people who aren’t directly connected to the school,” Berghorst said. “It’s a loss for the community larger than just the current students. Many of the condolences I’ve seen are from non-students and parents reflecting on the contributions he made to their kids’ lives.”

Kids First

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“It’s a great day in dragon land!”

That was one of Christensen’s favorite lines, referencing the Adrian team name - the Dragons.

Christensen imposed his positive attitude on students every day, constantly building a culture of family and togetherness.

“He made an effort to talk to everybody - he didn’t care who you were or what you did,” Grussing said. “He made an effort to include everyone. If there were kids sitting in the office, he would go out and talk to them, whether they were waiting for a parent to pick them up or for something else.”

Cate Koehne, special education teacher at Adrian High School for 15 years, said Christensen had a deep passion for helping students succeed.

“He was a principal who definitely put the kids first,” Koehne said. “He got to know kids on a personal level. He was there to support them - making sure he was there for them and trying to be a positive voice in their lives. Even if the kid was struggling, he stopped and made sure they knew he was on their side and wanted what was right for them.”

Lindsey Bonnett, who previously worked with Christensen in Luverne, has worked at Adrian Middle-High for three years. She was always happy to see him stop by her class.

“The students very much respected him,” she said. “His presence alone would ensure they were doing what they should be doing.”

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Funny … and hard-working

 As he had the respect of students and colleagues, Christensen could afford to crack jokes.

“One of the things you remember was his big grin,” Koehne said. “You immediately knew if you were going to be the source of his pranks, his humor.”

Joyce McCarthy, an English, journalism and speech teacher in her 17th year at Adrian, was often the target of Christensen’s playful banter.

“I’m originally from South Dakota, so he always teased me about being from South Dakota,” she said. “And I teased him back about growing up in Kanaranzi.”

Grussing got the same treatment.

“I grew up in Iowa, so that was all it took,” she said.

“Humor was a part of his life,” McCarthy said. “He enjoyed joking with us, having a sense of humor - even on days where things that weren’t so funny happening, I’m sure.”

When humor wasn’t applicable, Christensen could be strict with students, but was always able to get them back on his side.

“He did not hold grudges with students - he was very able to forgive and forget,” Berghorst said. “He was consistent in offering the discipline that was necessary but could then move on and have a positive relationship with those students down the road. Those times he had to face something difficult with students and families, he hit it head on.”

In his first year as a teacher, Graff taught a young Christensen in Luverne, who at the time had a major work ethic.

“He was a good kid - that’s how you remember him,” Graff said. “He was diligent and hardworking, and that’s how he approached his job here too.”

Colleagues said Christensen worked tirelessly at Adrian, as he was involved in nearly every aspect of the school.

Grussing came in at 7:30, but would often be beaten by Christensen. She guessed he was at the school at about 6 a.m. most days. Despite being an early riser, Christensen would attend all kinds of sports events, including - of course - Dragons games and pep rallies.

A huge sports fan, Christensen also became athletic director for Adrian in 2007. He coached his kids’ teams, was a member of the Luverne Baseball Association and refereed games in Luverne.

Family man

Nobody was a bigger fan of Cody Christensen during his time on the Gustavus Adolphus College baseball team than father Tim. Cody recently graduated and currently lives in Eden Prairie.

Another son of Christensen’s, Matthew is in the Peace Corps and is currently stationed in China. Christensen’s wife, Pam, and daughter, Stephanie, live in Luverne.

“Just knowing his family, they emulate a lot of the positive values that he displayed here,” McCarthy said. “His wife Pam was here many many times chaperoning, helping and being part of the school. His children - if you met them, you could sense his values and his honesty carry on in his kids.”

“One thing I remember is just how much he loved his kids,” Grussing said. “He did everything for his kids and his wife. He talked about them a lot, so when I met them, I felt like I knew them.”

Russ Lofthus, Adrian Elementary School principal, knew Christensen before he came to Adrian, as he taught his son in Luverne. Lofthus and Christensen were good friends and would have family gatherings from time to time.

“Family was the most important thing,” Lofthus said. “Doing stuff with his family and letting them know how important they were to him. That's one of his strong suits - the fact that he was such a great family man, and he came here and treated us like family too.”

Carrying on his legacy

On Monday, the staff got together on the federal holiday to work out where to go next. Every staff member who could possibly make it was in attendance to provide support and create a plan of action.

With 15 years experience under her belt, and a principal’s license on the way, Koehne was appointed dean of students Tuesday night at an emergency board meeting.

Everyone dreaded the first day back to school, including the students, most of whom already knew of the news before they entered the building.

Students and staff packed into the auditorium for a special assembly Tuesday morning. A montage put together by McCarthy showed snippets of Christensen’s commencement speech at last year’s graduation and many photos from the last few years. Graff and a handful of teachers spoke about their favorite boss before delivering a special message to the students.

“We told the kids that we’re gonna be OK,” Koehne said. “It was hard, but it was really important to us to carry on his legacy by celebrating the things that need to be celebrated for the rest of the school year. We’re gonna do it for him and in honor of him … we’re gonna be OK and it’s important we realize we still get to celebrate.”

“And that’s what he would've wanted,” Lofthus added.

Berghorst said although students are struggling with the loss - and will continue to - they understood the message of the assembly.

“At our darkest hour, we were able to keep the message of our identity and the positive things we have going here,” he said. “This message of relationship building and community celebrating that he pushed can be used even at the most difficult times.”

Southwest Service Co-op sent four counselors down to be with students, while local clergy also visited the school to help answer difficult questions.

Shortly after the last class ended Wednesday - after most students had exited Family Consumer Science and Home Economics Teacher Pam Sells’ classroom - one last student overheard Sells talking about Christensen on her way out the door.

“I’d been fine all day until I heard you talking!” she said.

“Oh, I'm sorry!” Sells responded.

As much as his passing affected the staff, many students were hit even harder.

“Kids have had a hard time,” Sells said. “For many of them, it’s probably one of the first losses they’ve experienced, or the first loss outside of a family member.”

Christensen had a variety of relationships with students, ranging from fun to disciplinary, but every student knew they count on him to help them through a problem.

“He’s not so much a father figure, but support and help - when I have a concern I can go to him and talk to him,” she said. “So I have to relearn that ... who do I go to now?

Staff members and students alike know there’s no replacing Christensen.

“When I think of him, and as I was putting together pictures, I think of him on that spot at the end of the gym where he always stood or sat supervising a game,” McCarthy said. “Or at the end of the football field, or at the hallway here in the school. Those places, we saw him always. That will be missed.”

“He was a good friend and a great colleague,” Lofthus said. “I had a close working relationship with Tim, and I’ll miss him.

As the staff begin try to move forward without Christensen, some hope that at the very least, he is in a better place.

“Truthfully, one of the first things I thought when I heard the news was … he’s at peace,” Grussing said. “Once I got to process it I thought, he was always so active, moving and doing stuff … maybe now he can relax and take a break.”

Visitation will be from 4 to 7 p.m. today at Dingmann Funeral Home, Luverne. A memorial service will be at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Grace Lutheran Church, Luverne.

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Tim Christensen talks to Adrian High School students at a school assembly. (Special to the Daily Globe)

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