Chris Hixon was as devoted to his students as he was to his own children up to the last minute of his life, said those who honored the slain Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School athletic director at his funeral Wednesday.
Hixon, 49, was among the first responders when gunfire erupted Feb. 14 in the freshman building, and he tried to disarm Nikolas Cruz, the troubled former student whom Hixon knew well in his role as a security monitor, mourners said.
Cruz, 19, has been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder using the AR-15 rifle he carried onto the Parkland campus at dismissal time. Hixon was one of three staff members killed while trying to protect students.
“There is no greater love than to lay one’s life down for one’s friends,” Rev. David Zirilli said during mass at Nativity Catholic Church in Hollywood.
The church was overflowing with Hixon’s relatives, friends, fellow teachers and students — many wearing Douglas team jerseys. Hixon’s wife, Debbie, who is a magnet program coordinator at South Broward High, and his sons Tommy and Corey sat near the coffin. The U.S. Navy also had a strong presence; Hixon served in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield. A bagpiper played “Amazing Grace.”
“We often ask why bad things happen to good people. Bad things happen because we live in a fallen world,” said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who told the crowd that Pope Francis sent a telegram offering his condolences. “What Chris did last Wednesday did not make him a hero. He was a hero long before that.”
Hixon was buried at the South Florida VA National Cemetery in Lake Worth. U.S. Navy servicemen in dress uniform were his pallbearers.
Hixon, who grew up as a wrestler in Easton, Pennsylvania, was remembered not only as Broward athletic director of the year in 2017 and as a championship wrestling coach, but as coach of four other sports at varying times when Douglas couldn’t fill coaching vacancies. He was a fan of NASCAR, a host of cookouts and a fixture at Eagles sporting events with special needs son Corey.
“We are all a little bit better for having known Chris,” said Frank Valliere, who worked with Hixon at South Broward and recalled how Hixon and Debbie had taken turns staying with him when he was hospitalized. “This is who the Hixons are — they always make everybody feel like family. He took students into his arms and into his house. He put others in front of himself in everything he did. He would tell us to cheer up and smile right now.”
A surprise 50th birthday party was planned for Hixon this weekend.
“Teachers are the unsung heroes of our society,” said Sharon Glickman, former president of the Broward teachers union and board member of the Broward Education Foundation. “We are nurturing by nature, and just as Chris did, we will do anything necessary for our children — our students.”
Hixon was acquainted with Cruz, as were other teachers at Douglas, because of the teen’s history of behavioral problems.
“Chris was compassionate,” said Larry Leverett, who worked with Hixon at Ely High as well as at Douglas. “He listened to the kids and tried to help them.”
Hixon was a father figure who made the 3,200-student school seem smaller, said Alan Strauss, high school cadre director for Broward schools and former principal at South Broward.
“There were all the additional things he did above and beyond his job titles, like chaperoning field trips or performing first aid using his Navy knowledge,” Strauss said. “He taught many lessons outside the classroom.”
As a black hearse departed with Hixon’s flag-draped coffin, Douglas science teacher Sean Simpson shook his head in sorrow.
“It is heart-wrenching that this happened to such a good guy,” he said. “So sad. So unnecessary.”