Before Gerry Boland went missing, he made his way to Lyons Elementary School to make sure the lights were on for people taking refuge from the floods ravaging Colorado's Front Range last September. Then the 80-year-old retired teacher and coach braved the storm to find his wife, Cheron. He had lost sight of her after they attempted to leave Lyons in separate vehicles.
At the same time, Cheron was searching for him. She was rescued moments before the rising water engulfed her car, but Gerry vanished. A week later, his body was found a few hundred yards from the ruins of the couple's home. "What the two of them did was so heroic," daughter Amy Hoh says. "They went back to look for each other without thinking, ‘Will I be safe?'"
That's the couple's legacy: stay focused on helping someone else, to the very end.
"Mr. Boland didn't simply pass on," says Adam Mack, who grew up a mile from the Bolands and was one of Gerry's sixth-grade students. "For the last 50 years, he's been passing down his leadership skills, his sense of direction, his humor."
The week it took to find him, marked by false sightings and futile searches, was wrenching for the family, friends and community who loved him. "Everyone mobilized," says Holli Stetson, Gerry's oldest daughter. "Everyone said, ‘We've got to find Mr. Boland.'"
It's easy to understand why he was regarded as the sort of self-reliant individual who would find a way to ride out the deluge that dumped more than 12 inches of rain in the first two days of the storm alone. Gifted with an optimistic, can-do attitude, he was known for his love of the outdoors and leading the local Boy Scout troop on 50-mile canoe trips. "At that time, there were a couple hundred people missing," Mack says.
"I really thought he had found his way to the home of a neighbor who had no power and no phone."
Born in Kansas, Gerry Boland was 8 when his parents divorced. His mother supported them by cooking in a café and bringing home leftovers. "He would reflect on having French onion soup for breakfast," Stetson says. To extend the life of his shoes, he'd use discarded cardboard boxes to make insoles.
Gerry served in the Army in the early 1950s. The armistice was signed four days before he was scheduled to go to Korea, Stetson says. Using the GI Bill, he enrolled in what is now the University of Northern Colorado in the fall of 1955. Seated alphabetically, he found himself next to Cheron Cruise in all their freshman classes.
"He was very handsome," Cheron says. "I was impressed." The couple got to know each other over coffee at the student union. Meanwhile, Gerry started singing with the college's show choir, the Choral Aires, which followed Bob Hope's troop-entertainment tour through Korea and Japan in the late 1950s.
Gerry and Cheron married in August 1959 and moved to Lyons, where Gerry got a job teaching high school science and Cheron was hired to teach fourth grade. They soon purchased the house near the North St. Vrain River where they raised Holli, Amy and son Brent.
Five years into his teaching career, Gerry took over Lyons' sixth-grade class but continued to coach high school basketball and football. Both daughters had him as their teacher, calling him "Mr. Dad."
"He told me I had to work twice as hard because I was the teacher's kid," Stetson says.
Stetson especially appreciated her father's rapport with students after she became a high school teacher and volleyball coach in nearby Longmont. "They knew he cared about them. As a teacher and a coach, I know kids need that. Not everyone gets that at home."
Gerry's stewardship went beyond the classroom. He started an outdoor education program called Eco-Week for his students near Rocky Mountain National Park. He was involved with several service organizations, including American Legion Post 32 in Longmont.
Busy as they were, Gerry and Cheron never missed their children's sporting events. Gerry sat down with them after games to talk about their performances. That included asking his son how many assists he'd made during a basketball game instead of how many points he scored.
"I considered that a disappointment," Brent says. "Now I realize he wasn't teaching basketball. He was teaching life. It's not about you. It's about the people around you."
During the 52 years Gerry and Cheron lived near the river, there was never a flood warning. So Gerry was skeptical when the evacuation order came at 2:30 a.m. last Sept. 12. Cheron persuaded him to move. They headed for Stetson's house about five miles away, taking separate vehicles with the idea that they would save both their car and pickup if the flood came. When they got to the south end of Lyons, they saw that a bridge was washed out, so they turned back toward town. But there were no streetlights, and they lost track of each other in the darkness and rain.
Cheron pulled over in a restaurant parking lot and waited for Gerry to drive by. Meanwhile, Gerry went to the elementary school, the official shelter and the place he taught for most of his 30-year career. The school's power was operating, so he turned on the lights, asked people if they had seen Cheron, and left to search for her.
Meanwhile, Cheron waited a few hours, then left to look for her husband. Her car stalled in rising waters as she got to the edge of town, and she called 911. A half-hour later, a wetsuit-clad rescue team used a front-end loader to get to Cheron. They put her in a life jacket and drove her to the elementary school in the muddy loader bucket. "I had a few bruises, but I made it out," she says. "All the people up on the cliff were cheering."
A bystander recorded the rescue with a mobile phone, and the footage made the news. Even as they watched it on TV, Cheron's children didn't recognize the car or realize that the woman being carried to safety was their mother until Stetson got a call reporting that she was at a shelter.
"Where my mom's car stalled, there are signs that say, ‘In case of flash flood, climb to safety,'" Hoh says. "That scared me as a little girl. And my dad would say, ‘It's never going to flash flood.'"
Early on, the family assumed Gerry had made it back home and was stuck there. They didn't realize the St. Vrain had jumped its banks and plowed right through the house. A FEMA rescue team wasn't able to get inside the house until late on Sept. 13, to discover that Gerry was not there.
The family's fraying emotions were pummeled by false reports. They received one call saying that Gerry was on the last evacuation bus out of Lyons. The family searched every shelter in the area. The next day, a resident told them Gerry's body had been found in his truck, also not true.
Later that weekend, a detective called to say that Gerry's pickup had been found near a neighbor's house, but the high, swift water made it unsafe to try to reach the vehicle. One day later, they learned that Gerry wasn't with his truck. Cheron remained resilient. "Mom said, ‘We are not giving up on him until we hear that final sentence,'" Hoh says.
A week after the evacuation order, Gerry's body was found a few hundred yards from his house.
More than 1,000 people attended his memorial service a few weeks later, including people who sang with him in the Choral Aires.
Ralph Bozella of The American Legion's Department of Colorado immediately called the Boland family and offered help. "They were the first of any organizations to reach out," Hoh says. "And they reached out in a big, big way. My mother was so touched by it."
The way the community turned out to search for Gerry and comfort his wife and children was his final gift to his family, years in the making. "He made a huge impact on people," Hoh says. "The love from his community came back to love us when we needed it."
Ken Olsen is a frequent contributor to The American Legion Magazine.