If you wrote Dave Hilligoss a letter in 2016, he’s been meaning to write you back.
“It was just too overwhelming,” he says of that dark time.
It all started on the last day of July in 2016. Hilligoss, a longtime KFOR radio host known for his soothing voice over a 23-year career, was called into his manager’s office.
Abruptly and without warning, he was let go.
There were reasons, of course: New management, the company was restructuring, and most importantly — costs needed to be cut. But none of them made the outcome any easier.
Hilligoss recalls his goodbyes, “People in the building were crying. No one could believe it.”
He had spent his entire career in radio, beginning in college at the University of Nebraska. Now, suddenly and unexpectedly, he found himself without a microphone. He was without an audience for the first time in decades.
That’s when the letters started arriving. There were hundreds. Hilligoss may have lost his audience, but his audience wanted to be sure he knew it wouldn’t lose him.
While the letters themselves were too overwhelming to respond to, Hilligoss admits, “I never said no to a cup of coffee. It was really neat to hear people encourage me.”
There were job offers too, often over those cups of coffee. But Hilligoss was waiting for something more. A feeling. He needed something that just felt right. Hilligoss credits both Connie, his wife of 36 years, and his faith for the healing he received, as well as the patience to wait for the next chapter of his life.
“Connie was the epitome of grace for me. She held me up and loved me, and gave me everything I needed,” Hilligoss says.
Connie saved the letters and cards in a large box. The letters kept arriving, and Connie kept saving. She spread out the joy of those correspondences. During the worst days, she would choose a letter from the box and give it to Dave to read.
She also encouraged her husband to travel — to relax and regroup. Together they went to Minnesota, and took a trip to New England.
“I kidnapped him and took him out of town to get him out of the routine,” she says.
Dave and Connie met in college. It was January of 1982 when, according to Connie, Dave smiled and winked at her. Then, as she recalls, she melted into a puddle. By 1985, they were married and Dave was working full-time in radio.
During the early years Dave worked the night shift at KHAT. Connie would join him.
“I’d stay as late as I could,” she says, but they both agreed “it was brutal.”
A few years later, they were a family of four with two boys. By then, Connie was running the family business, SignPro, and Dave was a stay-at-home dad — a rarity in the 1990s. But it worked. And Dave kept up his radio presence, filling in at KFOR wherever he was needed, a role he describes as “their designated hitter.” He did bookkeeping for SignPro from home, volunteered in the boys’ classrooms, and was active in their church.
As the years went on, the Hilligoss boys grew and so did Dave’s career. He was back on the radio full-time, by now a longstanding voice of KFOR. He had an audience, and loyal listeners. He had a following.
That is, until July 2016. And that is where the story of Hilligoss’ career could have ended. Except it didn’t.
“He’s always been a child-whisperer,” Connie says of her husband, the former Sunday school teacher, and a Homer’s Hero volunteer — a big-buddy program through the Lincoln Saltdogs.
And with his two brothers in education careers, it seems to run in the family. It’s no surprise then, that by November of 2016, Hilligoss was offered a position at Lincoln Public Schools. It was a para-educator position, in early childhood. Hilligoss had turned down job offers in radio, insurance and sales. He’d even considered retirement and the promise of relaxation and leisurely travel. Until the moment when something felt right.
That something was at Maxey Elementary School, where Hilligoss began his life’s second act, as Mr. Dave.
Today, Mr. Dave works as a special-education para-educator.
“I’m very honored that Maxey picked me,” says Hilligoss. His time is split up between different students with varying levels of needs. Often he's working one-on-one, always he's giving 100 percent.
“He has a heart of empathy,” says Connie. “He would do anything for anybody if it would make their life better.”
Which is exactly what Hilligoss does every day.
Maxey principal Suzanne Reimers agrees: “Dave has a love of children — all children, with all types of abilities, in all situations. Dave comes up with creative solutions on the spot whenever traditional methods fail, and that happens often in special ed.”
Some of Hilligoss' students are nonverbal. Others struggle with behavior. Many use an iPad to communicate. He finds ways to connect with each of them. He uses train cars and track to help students role play and practice social skills. He uses his free time to bind children’s artwork into books, allowing them to see the progress of their hard work. He sneaks Legos into math class so children have a familiar toy to count with. He gives high-fives and encouragement.
“I get to be creative,” he says, explaining how he often creates charts or file folders to encourage kids to stay on task.
His supervisor, resource teacher Jennifer Oestmann, appreciates his humor.
“It puts a smile on my face on a tough day,” she says. “I appreciate when a student has a struggle and he finds a solution. The kids know that he loves them. I need 15 Mr. Daves.”
He can be found every morning in the main hallway of Maxey. As the bell rings and children begin their walk to class, Mr. Dave is there. “Hi, Mr. Dave!” from tiny, shrill voices, excited to see their friend and start the day.
Mr. Dave calls each one by name. He’ll ask them specific questions, “Did you watch the game last night?” or “How did your homework go?”
He sings happy birthday. He dances. He brings children to the school therapy dog, even though he himself is allergic.
Mr. Dave loves helping children.
All children, with all types of abilities, in all situations.
Regarding his future, Hilligoss says, “I always thought it was supposed to be radio,” but adds, “I’m all-in with elementary students.”
Hilligoss got a second chance at a career, and as only a Mr. Dave could do, he chose giving back for his second act.
“Even though this can be challenging at times, it is also very rewarding. There’s nothing else I can think of right now that would be as rewarding and give me as much purpose and joy.”