More than 1,000 people gathered Friday at Omaha’s St. Cecilia Cathedral for the funeral Mass for teenager Leonna Dalton-Phillip and her grandparents, Jean and John W. “Jack” Dalton Sr.
The Rev. Michael Grewe, noting that Jack and Jean Dalton were married at the cathedral in 1968, expressed sympathy to the family on behalf of the parish and “all of Omaha.”
Grewe urged the mourners to find hope in God, and he encouraged friends, especially Dalton-Phillip’s fellow Burke High School friends, to share their memories with the surviving members of the family.
The three were killed in a shooting Dec. 26 at the Dalton home in Omaha. John W. Dalton Jr. has been arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of his parents and niece.
The funeral focused not on how they died but on how they lived, who they were and the Christian belief in an afterlife.
The three were part of two large, well-known Omaha families: John Dalton Sr. from the “Dozens of Cousins” and Jean from the McDaniel/Cottons. The pews were packed with family, friends, co-workers and Dalton-Phillip’s Burke schoolmates.
In his sermon, Grewe talked about each of the three people, relying on stories he had heard at a Thursday night wake and from their families.
Jack Dalton had the nickname “Mr. Cool” as a young man, the priest said. As a father, Dalton preached to his children “Be a hard worker. Be thrifty with the money you work so hard for.” And most of all, he stressed the value of family.
As the family outgrew its small house, Grewe said, John Dalton Sr. led them in building additions until it became a five-bedroom home.
A native of Omaha, he attended public schools and Cathedral High School, and graduated from Omaha Technical High. He worked for Nebraska Beef until his retirement in 2015, according to the funeral program. He loved “fishing, gardening, picking greens, and caring for his chickens,” the program said.
Dalton was 70 when he died.
Jean Dalton was “the heart of home,” Grewe said. She welcomed family and friends warmly, and took care to feed them well.
“Think of all the good food that came through that kitchen, through her hands, for you, with love,” Grewe said.
An avid reader, she “had a heart of gold and loved people coming into her home for holidays and family dinners,” the funeral program said.
The couple had four children: John Dalton Jr., Rendell Dalton, Jenelle Dalton and Jalisa Dalton.
Together, Jean and Jack Dalton raised three granddaughters: Brittiney, Shanel and Alysha Dalton.
They enjoyed taking family road trips to visit amusement parks and other attractions.
Born in Mississippi, Jean Dalton was 65 when she died.
Leonna Dalton-Phillip lived with her mother, Jalisa Dalton. Leonna’s father, Claude Phillip, lives in Des Moines.
The teenager often visited her maternal grandparents.
“One of their great joys in life was their granddaughter Leonna,” Grewe said.
At 18, she had a future as bright as her smile.
She had attended Skinner Magnet and Picotte Elementary Schools, then began to excel in academics at Alice Buffett Magnet Middle School, according to the funeral program.
She was a 4.0 senior at Burke High, taking advanced placement classes and making college plans and working as a cashier at Target. As a sophomore, she wrote an award-winning essay about a hero of hers, Harriet Tubman.
Co-captain of the Burke drill team, Dalton-Phillip loved to dance and had been dancing since she was 2.
“She was so talented, wasn’t she?” Grewe said.
Joy emanated from Dalton-Phillip through her dancing and her “million-dollar smile,” Grewe said.
This is a time of pain and broken hearts at letting the three of them go, Grewe said, but sadness is not the end of the story.
“Jack and Jean and Leonna are somehow mysteriously in the hands of God right now,” the pastor said.
Their spirit lives on, he said. Someone among those left behind may find themselves giving the same advice Jack Dalton used to give, Grewe said. Someone may feel Jean Dalton’s presence in the kitchen as they prepare food for family.
“And maybe on a beautiful morning you may find yourself so filled with life and joy that you simply have to dance,” the way that Leonna did so well.