GREENFIELD — It took a few minutes for Nick and Noah to believe what they were seeing.
The Christmas program at St. Michael School was almost over, but Santa had one more present to give Thursday night: their dad, Michael Strange, home from a tour of duty overseas.
On Thursday, Michael Strange returned to Greenfield after more than 10 months serving his country. It was just in time to surprise his children, Noah, a freshman at Greenfield-Central High School, and Nick, a fifth-grader at St. Michael School, for Christmas.
Strange left in February for his third tour of duty with the U.S. Army, and until this week, he hadn’t seen his family since. At the end of Nick’s school Christmas program at Greenfield- Central High School on Thursday night, the brothers got the best Christmas gift they could have asked for: their dad home for Christmas.
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When mom Denise found out her husband would be home late Wednesday night, she worked with teachers at the school to organize the ultimate surprise for her boys, who have struggled to fully enjoy the Christmas season while their dad was away.
The group had to act quickly; she learned he’d be home in time on Wednesday morning.
Teacher Emily Capen and others worked together to add the surprise to the end of the performance, which students had been rehearsing for weeks. Nick played an elf in the performance, and at the end, he and Noah were brought on stage, where Michael met them.
At first, Noah was surprised; he couldn’t believe his eyes. He could tell something was up — his mom was acting a little strange — but never imagined his dad would show up for his brother’s program.
Among dozens of students who were involved in the program, the family reunited on stage as they received a standing ovation from the full house.
With his dad home, it truly feels like Christmas, Noah said. For Nick, seeing his dad walk toward the stage at the end of the program was the “best present ever.”
Originally, Michael Strange wasn’t supposed to be home until January, so the family had prepared to spend the holidays without him. It wasn’t going to be easy, Denise Strange said. During one of his other tours, he was away for Christmas, and it was difficult on the boys, she said.
The last year hasn’t been easy, either. Because her sons are older, they better understand the dangers associated with their dad’s job and why he’s stationed overseas, she said.
When the opportunity arose for Michael to surprise them, she knew they had to plan something special.
She met up with her husband Wednesday night after he arrived home, telling the boys she was going out to shop and spend time with friends.
The couple spent Thursday together before their sons got home from school, and Michael Strange hid in the control room of the auditorium at the high school during the performance so he wouldn’t be spotted.
It was one of the hardest secrets the couple have ever tried to keep, they said. In fact, Denise almost spoiled the surprise a few times before the program began.
With tears in her eyes, she watched as her sons finally reunited with their dad.
“I think they were just awestruck,” she said after the program. “I don’t think I need to buy any presents this year.”
Michael was emotional too; in the spirit of Christmas, he was happy to be able to surprise his sons.
“It’s overwhelming,” he said. “I’m overflowing with emotions. … It’s been a good, hard year.”