Less than a week after the unexpected and tragic loss of Nevada Union High School teacher and coach, Craig Zetterberg, students and faculty paid tribute to the man known to his students as “Zeus,” celebrating his life of service to the school and community.
“Today’s a celebration. It is a celebration and it’s a time for us to acknowledge how fortunate we were to get to know this man, and how he impacted our lives,” Principal Michael Blake said to a packed gymnasium Friday afternoon. “It’s time for us to remember and share what we’re going to hold in our memory forever.”
Blake added, “I’m going to guarantee that we have his permission today to shout, to laugh and most importantly, to live life with joy and unbridled passion. That’s what he was about.”
Zetterberg, 49, was a teacher for more than 20 years and taught history at NU for seven years after coming to Nevada County from Wheatland. The beloved teacher was also the coach of the girls’ water polo team and co-coached the mountain biking team. He died of a heart attack last weekend while riding a bike trail with his students.
“I was very, very devastated, just because he was such a great guy,” NU junior Julia Riggs told The Union. “He was always smiling and always made people feel so important. I’m just going to miss his presence in the building, just knowing that he’s not here with us anymore.”
The hour-long memorial featured a special modern dance routine titled, “Our Future Hope,” which was recorded and performed by the school’s dance team and played on the Albert Ali Gymnasium video projector.
Faculty and students throughout the week also put together a film with Zetterberg’s longtime colleagues, who spoke about his life and accomplishments as not only an educator, but as a friend.
“This was the best way that we could bring closure to this week, and be able to move on and honor him, and to allow his family to be a part of this,” longtime friend and Ghidotti High School counselor Carla Aaron said.
“His school life was such a big part of his life, we took a lot of his time from his family, so I’m glad that they were able to see what he meant to everybody.”
Zetterberg’s family was given a standing ovation from the more than 2,000 students and faculty in attendance Friday and told The Union they were “appreciative and humbled by what happened today.”
Nicole Blaney, a senior at NU, played water polo for Zetterberg and served as his teaching assistant. Standing in front of her fellow classmates, she talked about how Zetterberg impacted her life and that of every student he came across.
“He was a mentor, a role model, a hero to many and an inspiration to all,” Blaney said.
“You could always count on him to greet you with a smile. He pushed every one of his students to be who they could be.”
During the memorial, members of the water polo team linked arms and chanted team songs. A student could be seen nearby with her head limp on a classmate’s shoulder, crying for the teacher and coach gone too soon.
“It was sad, but also happy, because that’s what he would have wanted was for everyone to be happy,” junior Preslie Newsom said.
“He was always so positive and he always pushed you to do your best, and he brought out that in everybody.”
Outside of Zetterberg’s classroom are post-it notes from his students with written messages reading, “you inspired, you loved, you honestly cared, you changed.”
Junior Stephen Demoss had fourth period U.S. history with Zetterberg,and said that the teacher was different from the other educators he has had.
“He was more than a teacher,” Demoss said.
“He didn’t really live for himself as much as he did for the people around him. He was that kind of selfless person.”
District Assistant Superintedent Karen Suenram helped to hand out T-shirts to faculty made in Zetterberg’s memory.
“These are shirts in honor of Mr. Zetterberg, and they have a quote from him. He often had many quotes that kids and staff alike repeat often,” Suenram said.
“‘We are N.U.’ is one of his quotes, and we put it on these shirts that were donated from people in the community for all of our staff to wear today.”
Suenram added, “He used to say, ‘Be proud that you are from Nevada Union and we are going to do it. We’re going to go to the wall.’”
Senior Cole Castleberry had known Zetterberg for six years and is incorporating his teacher’s legacy with his senior project. Castleberry wants everyone to remember his teacher in the years to come.
“I think he deserves to be remembered at this school in a huge way,” Castleberry said.
“I’m folding 1,000 paper cranes and turning them into a sculpture, which I hope to put on display in the library or the front office, and I want something written about Zeus on every single crane. So I’m getting people to just write something down really quick, either a letter to him or a story about him or anything.”
As the memorial came to an end, members of the girl’s water polo team passed around beach balls written with messages Zetterberg was known for giving to his students.
“Do what you do,” one ball read, and another said, “Feed the wolf!”
Students and faculty members played with the beach balls, hitting them back and forth before meeting in a circle on the gym floor. With arms linked in a circle, students and faculty members swayed back and forth in unison as they sang along to the school’s anthem.
“What he left behind is like no other, and he will be forever missed by us all,” Blaney said.
“Rest in peace, Zeus. We will carry the lessons you taught us wherever we go and will always love you. You were, and still are, our miracle.”
To contact Staff Writer Ivan Natividad, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4236.
“I’m going to guarantee that we have his permission today, to shout, to laugh, and most importantly, to live life with joy and unbridled passion. That’s what he was about.”
NU Principal Mike Blake