Get the latest from TODAY
For thousands of girls who attended The Hockaday School for the past 30 years, Kifleab Tekle was one of the first people they remembered meeting in preschool or kindergarten.
The genial security officer also was among the last who bid them farewell upon graduation from the Dallas, Texas, private school.
“Even after I went back to campus after college, he still knew my name and who I was and would ask about my sisters and family and everyone else,” said Abby Hoak-Morton, a 2005 grad.
Tekle, affectionately referred to as “Kief” on campus, retires from Hockaday on Friday.
When Hoak-Morton first heard the news in an April 1 email, she initially thought it was an April Fool’s joke.
After realizing it wasn’t, she and some former classmates decided to get Tekle a retirement gift. The original plan was for the Class of 2005 to give him a $2,005 check.
But once word spread about the GoFundMe account they had set up, alumnae from other years wanted to pitch in, along with parents and even current students.
By Monday, when the school had a private farewell ceremony for Tekle, the fund had raised more than $185,000.
Nearly 2,000 people made contributions.
“Obviously the dollar amount is great, but I think what was so exciting for him is the amount of people who gave,” Moak-Horton said. “It was really exciting for him to see he had an influence on all those lives.”
Born in Ethiopia, where he once taught middle school social studies, Tekle fled to Eritrea in east Africa after communists came to power in the 1970s, according to details provided by Hockaday.
Tekle eventually sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Sudan, where he worked as an immigration interpreter until a friend living in Texas helped find him a sponsor in Dallas.
Within a few years, he landed his current job, where he worked the carpool helping students get in and out of vehicles.
These days, he's on the security team that greets visitors at the front desk.
Hockaday is one of Dallas' elite prep schools for girls, attended by the daughters of former presidents (George W. Bush) and president hopefuls (Ross Perot).
In addition to his kind manner, Tekle is renowned for his memory.
“He knows everybody’s names, their parents names, what kind of car they drive, their license plates. He basically knows it all to make sure our school was safe," Hoak-Morton said.
One former student who contributed to his GoFundSite compared Tekle to the Harry Potter character who was the groundskeeper for the wizardry school in the series.
"Kief:Hockaday :: Hagrid:Hogwarts," wrote Kit Garton.
Lucy Durbin wrote that Tekle made "everyone feel loved and protected."
"I think everyone felt like your favorite because you had such an ability to make people feel special. No struggling student felt forgotten in your presence," she said.
Tekle has been shocked and delighted by the outpouring of support.
In a statement to TODAY, he said he has no idea what to do with his sudden windfall, at least for now.
“I will relax for a few weeks, and then I will plan what I’m going to do,” he said in an email. "I will visit my sisters in Eritrea within the year."
Tekle said he will miss everyone at the school, especially the younger students.
“Seeing the little kiddos in the morning with their energy. It makes me happy,” he said. “The older ones make my day easier by chatting with them and they listen to everything I say. We respect each other.”
The school’s headmistress, Liza Lee, referred to Tekle as a “treasure” and commended his “steadfast commitment to the safety of our girls.”
“Kief may think he is the lucky one from this outpouring of support, but we are the lucky ones," Lee said in a statement to TODAY.
"For 30 years, Kief was the emperor of the parking lot and carpool, and for all those years, Kief has been the heart and soul of Hockaday. He has given us lessons in grace, lessons in courtesy, and lessons in love.”
Follow TODAY.com writer Eun Kyung Kim on Twitter.