CHICAGO — The father-daughter reunion at a Catholic school in suburban Chicago was weeks in the making.
U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Konrad Otachel recently made a surprise visit to St. Thomas of Villanova Catholic School in Palatine to see his daughter, Naomi, a kindergartner.
“Her mother told me weeks ago that he was coming home, and I asked, ‘Would you like her to meet him at school?'” said Mary Brinkman, the school principal. “She was delighted.”
Konrad Otachel was returning home after almost 15 months away. He was stationed at a Navy support facility located seven degrees south of the equator.
So the school began planning. First there was a kindergarten writing assignment, asking students to write about one of their parents.
“We had to make it homework so her mom could make sure she wrote about her dad,” Brinkman said. “She wrote on both the front and back of her paper. Of course, for a kindergartner, that’s about six sentences.”
Then the school set up an event that students were told would be a blessing for people serving in the military. It had to be the day before Halloween — the day students came to school in costume — because that was the day Otachel’s two-week quarantine was ending, and no one wanted the family to wait over the weekend to be reunited.
The kindergarten class was chosen to come out to the flagpole, each child standing inside a red or blue hula hoop to keep them socially distanced, while the rest of the students watched from their classrooms.
After an introduction, Brinkman asked which student had a parent in the military.
Naomi, dressed in her Smurfette costume, “raised her hand and I invited her to come to the front to lead us in a Hail Mary,” Brinkman told Chicago Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
That placed Naomi with her back to the school door, and was the cue for Otachel to come out of the building, with Naomi’s mother, Marlleny, who was following to get the reunion on video. When the prayer was done, Brinkman asked Naomi to read her composition, which ended with, “I really want my daddy to come home.”
“I said, ‘Sometimes God helps dreams come true,'” Brinkman said. “And I told her to turn around.”
At first, Naomi stood, stunned, then said, “Daddy’s back?” before accepting the flowers he brought and being wrapped in his arms.
“She was 3 the last time she saw him,” Brinkman said.
Otachel’s most recent deployment was at the U.S. Navy Support Facility Diego Garcia, an atoll of the Chagos Archipelago in the British Indian Ocean Territory, located seven degrees south of the equator. The facility provides logistic support to operational forces deployed to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf areas.
He was previously stationed in Philadelphia, Virginia, Illinois and Bahrain, moving every two to three years. He will retire from the Navy in February after 22 years of service.
Once they were reacquainted, Otachel carried his daughter around the building, waving to the students who were still in their classrooms.
The ceremony also included participation from the local American Legion post, priests who have served as military chaplains and St. Thomas of Villanova’s pastor, Father Kris Janczak.
Martin is a staff writer at Chicago Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago.