Omaha South High School is left reeling after a popular educator died Tuesday a short time after breaking up a fight during school breakfast.
Tom Dickey, 37, was taken to the hospital about 8:30 a.m. — within an hour of the student fight — after complaining to staff that he did not feel well, an Omaha Public Schools official said. He was one of about 10 staff members who intervened in the scuffle among five girls.
An ambulance took him to the Nebraska Medical Center, where he later died.
There’s no indication that Dickey, a career education and technology supervisor, was directly injured in the fight, OPS spokeswoman Monique Farmer said. His cause of death has not been released.
The students involved in the fight face disciplinary action, and OPS is cooperating with police.
Grief counselors were at South High on Wednesday to help students and staff process Dickey’s death. Staff members created condolence cards for Dickey’s family, writing down memories of a colleague who South High Principal Ruben Cano said poured himself into his job. The school community is already working to collect donations to set up a college fund for his children.
“It was a sad day,” Cano said. “We’re all in mourning. We lost a friend and lost a colleague.”
Dickey rose from a childhood marked by struggle and loss — his single mother died of brain cancer when he was 7 — to become a star student and later a well-liked teacher at South, his alma mater.
He was a familiar face at South High School Alumni Association spaghetti feed fundraisers and was proud of his South Omaha roots, said Alumni Association President Carole Safley. “He was so excited to come back (to South),” she said.
Dickey was hired at South in 2015 to head the department covering subjects like family and consumer science, business and industrial technology.
It was a big, broad job, and Cano said Dickey rose to the occasion, nurturing the school’s fledgling robotics program, getting a spring fashion show off the ground and pushing through a bring-your-own-device policy that lets South students use laptops or tablets from home in the classroom.
“I don’t think that ‘I can’t do something,’ or ‘That’s not possible,’ was even in his lexicon,” Cano said.
Dickey also had taught at Metropolitan Community College as an adjunct instructor of finance and business since 2013.
From 2003 to 2015, he had been marketing and math teacher at North High, where he helped set Nick Orris’ life on a different trajectory.
Orris, a 2016 North High grad, said he met Dickey at the end of his sophomore year, when Dickey invited him to take his business class.
Orris felt a little lost about his future. He had chosen North because of its engineering program, but he wasn’t so sure that it was the right career for him.
Dickey became a mentor, helping him snag an internship at WoodmenLife and taking him to the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting.
Orris now works in sales and marketing for the Omaha Lancers while taking classes part time at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. In January, the last time he saw Dickey, he got to pay back his old teacher, inviting Dickey and his family to attend a hockey game.
“If it wasn’t for him inviting me to his class my junior year, I honestly don’t know what I’d be doing now,” Orris said.
Dickey is survived by his wife, Thea; children, Caleb and Julia; three brothers; and other family.
When Dickey was little, his family traveled to the White House to receive the Great American Family Award presented by then-first lady Nancy Reagan. The award recognized the tight-knit family headed then by hardworking single mother Gladys Dickey.
Tragedy struck just a few years later when Gladys Dickey died of cancer. The four brothers bounced between homes, but Dickey went on to become a lauded student leader and volunteer who was a finalist for the Boys & Girls Club National Youth of the Year Award in 1998.
A celebration of life is scheduled for Dec. 2 at 10:30 a.m. at Crosspoint Bible Church at 7820 Fort St.