Principal Celeste Borcher had a stern look in her eye as she lectured a group of thirdand sixth-graders on the lawn outside the office at Erma B. Reese Elementary School.
“There’s a third-grade class and a sixth-grade class that are not doing what they are supposed to be. So we have to take class time to get you out here,” she said. “And I’m pretty disappointed in you. We just had a Lifeskills assembly this week, and here we are not behaving ourselves. Are you understanding what I’m saying?”
Gabriel Donley, 9, was listening attentively, but froze when the office door opened. The lecture paused, and a man in an Army uniform stepped toward the circle of kids.
Gillian Donley, his 11-year-old sister, leaped at their dad, Capt. Chad Eric Donley. The 9-year-old boy stared in amazement before running in for a hug and shouting, “Daddy!”
Mom Christine Donley looked on with her camera in hand while her husband hugged his kids for the first time since August.
“OK, guys, don’t worry. You’re not really in trouble,” said Borcher to the surrounding students. “You were really good in the cafeteria.”
Donley, an Army chaplain for nearly 10 years, has been stationed in South Korea for two years. He didn’t expect to get leave for Christmas because he’s due to discharge from the Army in January. But that date has been pushed back several times since June.
Since then, he was hired as a pastor for the Church of Christ on Ham Lane and his family moved to Lodi to get settled in time for school. The family hoped Donley could join then in a few weeks, but the time has ticked by.
When he got the news he would be home for Christmas, Donley wanted to keep it a surprise, even from his wife.
“I wasn’t going to tell her, but she was getting distraught,” he said.
On Tuesday, Christine Donley got a call from her husband on her cellphone.
“I need to tell you something. It’s really important,” said Donley.
Amid the buzz over Kim Jong Il’s death in North Korea, troops stationed in South Korea have been on high alert. Christine Donley says she was scared to death that her husband was calling to tell her he was heading into a dangerous situation.
Instead, he asked if she could pick him up at the airport on Thursday.
“I’m going to punch your lights out!” she shouted, ecstatic that her husband would be home for the holiday.
He landed in San Francisco on Thursday morning and made a beeline with his wife to the school. Donley will be home on leave from Dec. 22 to Jan 7.
He’ll have the chance to lead the Christmas and New Year’s Day services at the church. For months, he’s sent short video clips each week to introduce himself to the congregation.
During his military career, Donley’s family has moved with him to his various postings. Usually, they use Skype to contact family during the holidays. This time, the kids were prepared to have Christmas with Dad on the computer.
“He’s never missed a Christmas or anything. For him to miss something, to them it’s unheard of,” she said.
Donely has only spent five days in the town his family now calls home. They’ll spend the next several days acclimatizing to Lodi and watching their favorite Christmas movies, “Home Alone” and “A Christmas Story.”
“I want to plant some roots, put the boxes away for good,” he said. “Lord willing, a few weeks and some paperwork and I’ll be back here for good.”
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.