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In an extraordinary display of compassion, community caring and support, residents in a small Nebraska city recently banded together to fulfill a dying man’s wish to see his daughter get married and his son graduate from high school — two surprise ceremonies organized all within the span of a few hours.
It was simply their way of returning a favor to Dr. Dan Harrahill. Friends and neighbors said the much-loved doctor would drop whatever he was doing to help others over the course of his 18-year career as a family practice physician at Howard County Medical Clinic in St. Paul.
“I thought it would be just a few people and just a few words. But the community exceeded any expectations I could have had,” said Emilea Harrahill, his 23-year-old daughter, who exchanged her vows at the hospital where her dad spent his last moments. “That’s an attribution to our dad. He’s always been there to help the community. When it was our turn to need the help, they delivered tenfold. It was beyond words.”
The doctor — known by his patients and the community simply as “Dr. Dan” — was diagnosed with colon cancer last November. His family believed that the father of four would live for several more years — and that he’d surely see his son Noah graduate from high school in May, and be able to walk Emilea down the aisle in June.
In February, however, the family learned Harrahill would only have nine to 15 months to live. And on March 23, he was hospitalized and told he’d be lucky to live another week.
Upon hearing the prognosis, Emilea said she and her fiancé, Kyle, immediately drove from their home in Lincoln. She brought along her wedding dress, knowing her father wanted to see what she looked like in it. “Kyle and I just kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s just do this now,'" she said.
Within a few hours of Emilea calling their priest on March 24 to ask if he could marry them, and Shelly, Harrahill’s wife, reaching out to Noah’s high school principal to see what could be done in terms of a graduation ceremony, the community sprang to action. A graduation would take place at the hospital at 4:30 p.m. on that very same day — followed by a wedding at 5 p.m.
For the wedding, a cousin got in touch with a florist, who provided a bouquet and boutonniere. Vanilla, chocolate and apple cupcakes were brought by another volunteer. A member of the community — who is also a caterer — brought pasta, salad and breadsticks. Noah played "Canon in D" on the piano as his sister walked down the aisle with her dad by her side in a wheelchair at a chapel at St. Francis Hospital. She wore her wedding dress, which didn’t fit quite right and had to be held together with a safety pin. But none of that mattered.
“It was incredible. It was the best moment I could ever ask for. That was always his goal — to walk me down the aisle. It was beyond words. It was so special,” said Emilea, noting about 70 people attended.
“The joy shown in his eyes when he walked into the room in her wedding dress was so beautiful to me,” added Shelly. “He later said to me that it was one of the best days of his life.”
As for the high school graduation: Seven or eight seniors rounded up gowns (and a teacher who could help iron them), hats and tassels. The valedictorian and salutatorian wrote their speeches in record time. Students learned to play and sing “Pomp and Circumstance.” Others created a dedication video for Harrahill. Graduation programs were printed.
“On that day he was all smiles,” said John Poppert, the superintendent at St. Paul Public Schools, and a close friend of Harrahill’s. “His last two weeks were a lot of smiles and a lot of laughter. He was comfortable with what was happening.”
Harrahill passed away a little over a week later, on April 1, at the age of 52.
His family and patients were his life. Harrahill worked up until two weeks before he died, according to Emilea. He was an old-fashioned doctor in that he frequently made house calls or had patients swing by his own home. Shelly said her husband always gave out his cellphone number. And he’d frequently attend community sporting events just so there would be a doctor on the scene in case anyone got hurt.
Jeannette Weiser, a medical assistant who worked alongside Harrahill for 18 years, recounted, “I don’t remember going home at night without him saying ‘thank you’ to me. He was so humble and appreciative.”
A Facebook group called “Dr. Dan’s Fans” has nearly 1,500 members and is filled with tributes to him. “Dr. Dan just had that way of letting you feel like you are the ONLY patient every time you came in…I drove miles and miles for years just to see the doctor that no other doctor could beat. A huge caring heart and a passion for people. Gone but not forgotten,” one wrote. Another recounted how Harrahill delivered her baby by an emergency cesarean section after going through five previous miscarriages, noting “it wouldn’t have been possible without you by our side.”
Indeed, Harrahill's funeral had to be moved to a community center in town to hold the crowd of people who wanted to pay their respects. The funeral director told the family that 1,500 people came to his visitation, and about 700 people attended the funeral itself.
The humble doctor would have been moved by the outpouring, but would never have sought it. “He didn’t want any recognition; he didn’t want any publicity,” said Shelly.
Emilea added, “He would never want credit or seek attention for something. The important thing he taught all of us was just to do the right thing — that it didn’t matter what house you lived in or how much money you make. But that if you make one person feel better, then that’s going to go farther than anything else in life. He lived by that and practiced that every day.”