GREENFIELD — As Steve Bryant moved around the gym, hugging students one by one, a look of disbelief lingered on his face.

Moments earlier, graduating students surprised their outgoing principal with a check for about $5,100, money they raised to send the man they say has supported them the past four years on a much-deserved vacation. Launching in February, the campaign raised about $5,500 from 119 donors thanks to the page being shared on social media sites nearly 1,000 times.

It was something of a school-wide secret, with Bryant’s own wife helping to keep him in the dark. Donations came from current and former students, their families and fellow educators. Students who graduated from Union County High School, where Bryant worked before moving to Greenfield-Central, gave to the cause, too — some 20 years later, they still remember the principal who always cheered them on.

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The messages — which continued to roll in as the last dollars were collected — all shared a common theme: You deserve this.

Bryant, who announced in August this school year would be his last after more than 44 years in education — 18 of which he spent at Greenfield-Central High School — said he couldn’t put into words the way students left him feeling Friday.

Spending a little time traveling the world is at the top of his bucket list for how he wants to fill the free time he’ll soon have, and with the help of grateful students and two caring communities, he won’t have to foot the bill for that first post-retirement vacation.

“I’m completely shocked,” he said. “I can’t wrap my head around it.”

Shortly after Bryant announced his departure, members of the senior class got an idea. They wanted to gift their beloved principal with something that would show him they’ve noticed his commitment and support to them since they walked through the school’s doors as freshmen nearly four years ago.

He deserves time to relax, said senior Makenzie Horning, so they began brainstorming ways to raise money for a cruise for Bryant and his wife, Brenda, also a longtime Greenfield educator.

With help from assistant principal Susie Coleman and other front office staff members, the seniors launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise at least $5,000 for the principal who rarely missed a school event, traveling near and far to support his students in academics and extracurriculars.

“Mr. Bryant is a special kind of person. His shoes will not be easily filled,” the GoFundMe page read.

While seniors celebrated their high school accomplishments at the annual senior brunch this past week, they honored Bryant, too.

As assistant principal Brent Oliver rattled off graduation reminders for seniors, he encouraged them not to forget to express gratitude to the people who helped get them to this point. Their parents, teachers, friends.

Oliver then turned and thanked Bryant for the difference he’s made in Oliver’s career while Horning walked to the stage with a giant card in hand.

Instantly, Bryant’s head dropped; his hand covered his gaping mouth as he realized what was happening.

Horning and Coleman presented him with the card, signed by each member of the graduating class, and a presentation check.

The senior told him — and the room filled with students, teachers and friends — that his tireless dedication to them had not been overlooked.

“Your warm smile, gentle attitude and words of encouragement have motivated many and helped them feel loved in such a large school,” she said.

She told him the fundraiser had secretly gone on for months; staff members whispered about it at school, and students shared it on Facebook as his wife quietly researched cruises.

They hope he’ll use the vacation to relax and reflect on all the lives he’s touched over the years, Horning said.

Bryant, overwhelmed by the gift, could find few words to express his gratitude, but he left students with one message: Love is time, he said, choking back tears.

“I hope after the time I spent with you, you know how much I love you.”

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Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.