AUBURN — Surprise!

Auburn’s newest Citizen of the Year is Dan Campbell and for a beautiful moment, he was also the perfect face of utter confusion.

Seconds after stepping through the doors at Lost Valley on Thursday night, Campbell stood in bewildered silence as nearly 300 people thundered applause. He blinked a few times. His mouth fell open. Understanding began to dawn at last and that’s when the tears started to roll.

“You got me,” he muttered, and then the adoring throng swarmed him.

The wildly popular Edward Little High School coach and counselor showed up to the Auburn Business Association banquet with one eye covered with a patch, the result of a recent hospital stay. After embracing his wife and a few others, Campbell waded into the crowd, flipping up his eye patch as he went.

“I want you to know that I’m seeing double,” he said. “I see a lot more of you out there.”

Not that there was any concern about attendance. It was one of the largest crowds ever for a Citizen of the Year event. The people who showed up to honor Campbell included students, past and present, along with most the of the EL track team. Not to mention the dozens of friends, co-workers and city leaders who had been sitting on this happy secret for months.

“I’ve been very excited about this since I first heard about it,” said longtime Campbell friend Jim Murphy. “He deserves this 100 percent. It should have happened a long time ago.”

Murphy was echoing the kind of sentiment offered by dozens of others throughout the night. For years, Campbell has been guiding Auburn kids as a track coach and counselor. Some of those kids were on their way to bad times, friends said, before Campbell stepped in.

“All these people,” said Mike Nyberg, gesturing at the men, women and teens lining up to greet Campbell, “these are people whose lives he’s touched in one way or another. He goes way beyond coaching. Dan has a heart like no other.”

His generosity extends well beyond Edward Little, of course. Several people spoke about the many marathons Campbell has organized — as near as Lake Auburn and as far as Santa Barbara, California — often working so tirelessly that friends would worry. They talked of his work on charity fundraisers and of his absolute willingness to extend himself whenever he is needed.

“He spreads himself too thin sometimes,” Murphy said.

Of course, that didn’t prevent his admiring friends and co-workers from delighting in Campbell’s shock at receiving the award. Before Campbell arrived, there was general agreement that he had no idea, no clue whatsoever.

“He’s a very humble man,” said Louise Magno-Hamilton, a minute or two before Campbell arrived, “who’s going to be quite shocked. He has no idea.”

It was a well-kept secret, orchestrated in large part by Campbell’s wife, Shari, who worked for months to keep it from him. It worked beautifully, although the beans were nearly spilled a day before.

“The closest I came to figuring it out was yesterday,” Campbell said. “Somebody congratulated me on the big award, but I really didn’t know what he was talking about.”

Campbell thought he was coming to Lost Valley to see his mentor, longtime Auburn educator David Eretzian, accept an award. Instead, Campbell found himself being roasted by Eretzian, the emcee of the event, who seized the moment to make fun of Campbell’s eye patch. Once the jokes were out of the way, however, Eretzian honored his friend, agreeing that no one deserved the Citizen of the Year Award more than Campbell.

“I commend the Auburn Business Association for their insight and wisdom,” Eretzian said.

Several people attempted to enumerate all of the things Campbell has done for the youth of Auburn and for the community at large. They soon ran out of time and just shook their heads in wonder.

“He helps people. That’s what he does,” said Nyberg, an assistant coach who works closely with Campbell. “That seems to be what he was put here to do.”

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