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Originally published June 19, 2011 at 8:21 PM | Page modified June 20, 2011 at 9:37 AM

Auburn High awards honorary diploma to volunteer 'hero'

Twenty-five years after Bobby Vogel arrived at Auburn High School, he walked across the field in cap and gown Sunday, proudly holding his diploma.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes Who says that there's something wrong with kids today? What a great story. Read more
quotes Bobby really is a great human being. He's a stranger to no one. Read more
quotes Thank you Auburn High School for teaching all of us a lesson in the "power of... Read more

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More than 25 years after Bobby Vogel arrived at Auburn High School, he walked across the field in cap and gown Sunday, proudly holding his diploma.

He earned it not with his grades but with his spirit.

"I made it!" Vogel said triumphantly as he hugged students and friends.

Vogel, 67, is developmentally disabled and never received a formal education. Growing up, he always loved school, his older sister Patricia Schiferl recalled. But back then, he was dismissed as a child who was unable to learn and later sent to group homes.

Something different happened when he showed up at Auburn High years later, cheering on the basketball team. The school embraced him.

Nine years ago, men's basketball coach Ryan Hansen made him team manager, and Vogel hasn't missed a game ever since.

Vogel has lived in Auburn for 30 years. He worked at a Marriott hotel and at a Safeway store, but he's better known as the town's unofficial goodwill ambassador.

He can't drive, but he walks around Auburn wearing his signature shorts and a grin, making friends and talking with everyone he meets.

He was named Auburn's No. 1 hero twice during the town's annual Good 'Ol Days festival.

Four years ago, assistant basketball coach Chuck Chew and his wife, Crystal Wissness, bought a house for Vogel a few blocks from the school. After his parents died, Vogel made the school his family. He arrives every afternoon, making the rounds to greet staff and help field balls during sports practice.

"He's everybody's inspiration, really," said Cameron Sowards, 18, one of many graduates who stopped to have a photo taken with Vogel. "He's always positive, and he's always around trying to be happy."

Auburn High School Principal Richard Zimmerman called him "a stranger to no one and a friend of all." Vogel's experience has given everyone a lesson in the power of acceptance. A proclamation by the principal, superintendent and school-district board of directors says Vogel "has experienced an increase in cognitive educational understanding as a result of years of constant and consistent interaction with teachers, coaches, students, parents and administrators."

The proclamation lauds Vogel for "dedicating his life to the betterment of all who pass through the doors of Auburn High" and for thousands of hours of volunteer work over the past 25 years.

Before this, Auburn High had never given out an honorary diploma. When Zimmerman announced the plan at a school assembly a few weeks ago, "every kid was on his feet. The 1,700 students and staff started shouting, 'Bobby, Bobby, Bobby,' " he said. "They just blew the roof off the place."

When they learned Vogel didn't have dress pants or shoes for the occasion, Zimmerman sent out an email to school staff. "Within an hour, we had enough money to buy a full set of clothes and a graduation present," he said.

Three seniors went around the school with jars and collected $160 to buy Vogel a class ring.

"It's really been a unifying experience for everyone," Zimmerman said.

Khailo Nieves-Woods, who helped Vogel manage the basketball team, was elated to see him awarded a degree Sunday.

Though he would be leaving high school and Vogel would be staying on, Nieves-Woods said, "I'm going to always come back and say, 'What's up, Bobby?' and give him a hug." He will also take a bit of Vogel's wisdom along.

"Bobby made me realize you could do anything with your life."

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

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