The first feet on the sidewalk outside St. Anne Catholic School on Wednesday morning belonged to a tiny little girl with freckles wearing tiny, silver, sparkly shoes. Then, a boy in a soccer jersey. Mall sweatshirts, jeans, sneakers all around. Kindergartners in, of all things, pajamas.
On almost all days at this school, the kids wear uniforms. Not Wednesday. The students raised money to not wear uniforms.
It's called NUTS Day. Not as in "Dys, you are NUTS!" that usually comes from readers and editors, but 'No Uniform To School' -- NUTS.
But the reason for this NUTS Day was somber. A St. Anne alum, Lee Brooks, died last month at age 26. He was wounded in Iraq while serving in the Army. The vehicle he was riding in was blown up in 2004. Brooks' back and head were injured. He received the Purple Heart and Meritorious Service medals.
Although autopsy results are not yet available, family said Brooks had a seizure at the time of his death.
The old yearbooks at the school show Brooks' smiling face in those St. Anne years.
"He had a contagious smile," said teacher Diane Hinton, who taught Brooks so many years ago. "Bright, twinkling eyes."
Like all boys, Hinton said, Lee Brooks was no angel. "He was a little boy," she said.
And that is what Wednesday was all about. The school is filled with little kids now who are just like Lee Brooks was years ago.
So, Hinton came up with the idea to do something for Brooks' family. St. Anne students raise money, have NUTS Day every so often, for worthy causes such as juvenile diabetes, soup kitchens and more. Principal Larry McLaughlin agreed a NUTS Day for Brooks was worth a try.
Not because the family needed it or asked for it, but because Brooks was family.
What happened was far more than sparkly shoes and jerseys. One family sent a check for $500. Others sent $100, $50, $25. There are fewer than 300 students at St. Anne. Yet, kids raised $2,892.75.
"I have never seen anything like this here for a NUTS Day," said bookkeeper Maria Perez. "Coins. Change. It costs a dollar for each child to participate, but this is piggy bank, tooth fairy money."
So on Wednesday, the students filed into the gym in their regular clothes for morning prayer. Prayers are part of the routine at this Catholic school. McLaughlin, the principal, told the children, "Today, we celebrate Lee Brooks' life, values, the people he touched here on earth. I know he has a place in heaven."
He read to the kids some of who Brooks was, from earlier columns I wrote. He called me, "Mr. Deese." I was never so happy to have my name mispronounced, like it often is.
McLaughlin, a super guy, said Brooks, who left a widow and 18-month-old daughter, was an Army marksman. A student said loud enough to be heard, "Sniper."
McLaughlin thanked the children for the generosity for Brooks' family.
"You are touching their hearts," he told the students.
Brooks' family didn't ask for the St. Anne grace of giving, said Brooks' mother, Debbie. But after sending Lee to St. Anne for all those years of elementary and middle school -- Debbie Brooks was there so much when Lee Brooks was in kindergarten she was hired the next year and worked part time for three years -- she is touched.
"Wonderful," Debbie Brooks said. "Remarkable. Beautiful."
Brooks' widow, Krista, thanked St. Anne students for their kindness. She plans to open a trust fund for daughter Rylee, Brooks' cousin and niece.
On Wednesday, the students went to class at St. Anne School. Just like Lee Brooks used to do. Before he became a wrestler at Northwestern High School, before he went to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Before he died so young.