Thankful Return: Debra Koepp’s journey through grief leads her back to UNK

UNK Communications

KEARNEY – There is something about UNK that brought Debra Koepp back.

Was it the vibrant academic environment? Her familiarity with campus? Personal and professional growth opportunities?

Yes, all of that. But above all, it was the people.

It was the supportive campus community – the family-like atmosphere – that drew her back to the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Because here – after fighting through her lowest of lows – she’s finding happiness again.

It takes a moment for her to wipe away the tears. To collect herself.

But when she does, Debra opens up about her husband’s unexpected death.

How, while navigating her career, her world took a sudden, tragic turn.

“I’m plopping back into life. It hasn’t been …,” she says, her voice trailing off. “It hasn’t been easy.”

Two years have passed – Sept. 26, 2021 – since Roy Koepp came down with pneumonia and died unexpectedly from a heart attack. He was 51.

Gone was his infectious laugh. His excitement for anything “Star Wars.” Hanging out with other history geeks at Kearney’s Thunderhead Brewery over a flight of beers. And his love for the Iowa Hawkeyes, Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Cubs.

“Life changed in an instant. I found myself without a social network. I was all alone and dealing with grief,” Debra says, tears welling in her eyes.

A dedicated scholar and gifted teacher, Roy had a passion for history. Even more passion for students.

He came from honest means. His mom was a nurse. Dad worked for John Deere.

“He understood students because he could relate to where they were at. He wasn’t a great student himself and always said it was amazing that he even graduated high school,” Debra jokes. “He didn’t take for granted the life he got to have. The lives he was able to impact.”

Roy came to UNK as a visiting assistant professor in 2011. Debra joined him at UNK in 2014 as an enrollment specialist in graduate admissions. They left in 2018 when Roy took a tenure-track position teaching history at Eastern New Mexico University.

“He loved UNK. Leaving Kearney was hard,” recalls Debra.

The Koepps never fell in love with their new university in Portales, New Mexico.

Following Roy’s death, Debra found herself at a crossroads. Return to her roots and hometown in Jesup, Iowa, or come back to UNK, where she always felt a sense of belonging.

The decision, she says, quickly became clear.

“Kearney always felt like home to us. UNK has always been about the people. There’s a warmth and friendliness here,” she explains. “UNK is just so comfortable and familiar.”

Debra knew UNK was where she belonged. So, she came back in March and is working as an enrollment and retention specialist and academic coach in Graduate Studies and Academic Outreach. She’s also an online graduate coordinator for art education.

“Returning to UNK was the easiest decision I’ve made in a long time. People are so kind. Like family.”

The tears flow freely from Debra’s eyes. “UNK is so easy to say yes to. It’s just wonderful here.”

For Debra, this Thanksgiving takes on special meaning.

It’s not just about mashed potatoes, blueberry pie and turkey – Roy’s favorite holiday dishes – it’s about reflecting on what being thankful truly means. Acknowledging the good in her life and expressing appreciation for UNK, the “campus family” that supports her and gratitude for the daily acts of kindness she experiences.

“It’s different without Roy here. But in my heart, it still feels the same,” Debra says.

“I know how much Roy loved this university, and I know that he would be so happy to know I am back here with fantastic people who mean the world to me. I am thankful for UNK. It’s so good to be back home and happy again.”