When colleagues at Westside Community Schools say Jeff Nannen was a role model for the young students he taught in physical education classes, they mean it.
Nannen organized a fun run for kids every year in the neighborhood around Loveland Elementary, one of the two elementary schools where he was teaching. He volunteered at open gym wellness nights organized by the school's community club. He rode his bike everywhere, and his students would notice, spotting him around town.
“He promoted and showed the students how to be active and live a healthy lifestyle by doing that physical activity,” said Stephanie Hornung, Loveland's principal and a former Westside physical education teacher.
But on Wednesday and Thursday, students at the schools where Nannen taught over the past 20 years were struggling with his death.
Nannen, 55, is believed to have suffered a heart attack Tuesday night after he got out of a hot tub at his home, said his brother, David Nannen, of Blair, Neb.
Nannen said his brother was very fit, but he'd had a bad bout of influenza B a few weeks ago. He was finally feeling better.
“We're still kind of numb,” David Nannen said.
Fitness was no fad for Nannen. Before he became a well-regarded P.E. teacher, he was a standout athlete — first at Syracuse High School, where he was an all-state basketball player and state champion high jumper; then at the University of South Dakota, where the post player was an All-American and held a scoring record for more than 20 years. He later was a professional basketball player in Europe, playing in England, Germany, Australia and Sweden.
Later, he took to the courts in Hoop-It-Up tournaments, playing with other former college and pro players such as the Dean Thompson, the University of Nebraska at Omaha's all-time leading scorer. In 1991, the Sioux Falls, S.D., Continental Basketball Association team tapped Nannen as a one-night fill-in when it was missing a player in its matchup against the Omaha Racers.
Nannen was part of a basketball family. David Nannen played a year for Nebraska Wesleyan. Uncles Lyle and Neil played at Nebraska. They, along with their younger brother, Mike, all coached for years. The family has been recognized by the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame Foundation with its Fisher Family Hall of Fame Award.
Jeff Nannen also coached at both Westside Middle School, where he started his career with the district, and at Westside High School.
On Wednesday night and Thursday, crisis teams were available for students and staff at Loveland, Sunset Hills and the middle school.
“It's a real heavy feeling here today,” Hornung said. “The common feeling is, 'I miss Mr. Nannen.' And we all do.”
Hornung said Nannen touched a lot of lives, at the high school level as well as at the lower grades. She'd already heard from a parent who'd had Nannen as a coach.
At Loveland, he taught students twice a week. At the end of the second day, he always gave them a Tootsie Roll as a treat. Tootsie Rolls were featured on many of the cards students prepared Thursday to send to his family.
“His colleagues and peers just really respected him,” she said.
In addition to his brother, he is survived by his parents, Dick and Sherry Nannen of Blair; sister, Marcia Haynes of Doniphan, Neb., and several nieces and nephews.
Funeral services will be 11 a.m. Saturday at First United Methodist Church in Blair.