Each morning for more than 25 years, a beaming Don Hartzell greeted his students as they poured through the front doors of North Branch Elementary — scooping up and twirling the younger children with glee and delighting older kids with a joke. Always, with the idea that children who felt cared for did better in school.

“He taught us that first and foremost that these children were to be loved, and then the teaching could begin,” former teacher Mary Jo Pohlkamp said of the principal who hired her in 1975.

Kirby Ekstrom, chairman of the North Branch school board and a former student, said: “He was there before and after school every day, always with a smile on his face.”

Linda Schubring can see her father’s smile still.

“It could light up a room,” she said of the man “who taught me how to love other people and always show respect.”

Hartzell, 86, died from cancer June 22 at his North Branch home. Marlene, his wife of 54 years, and daughter were at his side.

Born June 2, 1934 to Gladys and Earl Hartzell in Tyler, Minn., Hartzell graduated from Lynd High School in 1952 and earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Cloud State in 1956. He taught for a year in Hutchinson before joining the Army and serving in Korea from 1957 to 1959. After resuming his teaching career, he earned a master’s degree from Indiana State University. He came to North Branch in August 1963 to work as elementary principal. He and Marlene Rutz married in August 1965. Their daughter, Linda, was born in 1974. In 1983-1984, he and his family lived in Manila, Philippines, where Hartzell served as principal of Faith Academy.

At North Branch, Pohlkamp remembers Hartzell packing new teachers into his car to tour the school district, pointing out the area’s history and other details.

“Don knew to be a good teacher, principal or anyone working with children, that you need to know the hearts of the families you’re dealing with,” she said in an e-mail. “He helped us learn our students’ stories, which in turn helped us to become better teachers.”

He also was a bit of a soft touch, Pohlkamp said, at least where the “little ones” were concerned. A trip to the principal’s office for classroom shenanigans usually ended up with the student’s pockets stuffed with treats in return for promising to behave. Needless to say, repeat offenders were common.

Following his retirement in 1991, Hartzell’s smile became ubiquitous around town — with the Jaycees, Cub Scouts and Gideons. He worked for several years at an area McDonald’s and at a local berry farm. He spent three decades as the town Santa Claus, refusing to leave the community center until all the waiting children had a chance to place their requests. An avid gardener, he grew apple trees and was a regular at the local farmers market.

Hartzell was a founding member of the North Branch Lions Club, which later named its community service award after him.

Lions president Bob Olsen, who was one of the 5-year-old students Hartzell once twirled around, later became a neighbor and friend. Hartzell was “like a second father to me” after Olsen’s father died in 1993. “He was always there to talk to,” Olsen said. “Every time you met him he had a joke. He loved making people laugh.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Hartzell is survived by one granddaughter, sisters Mary Anderson of Windom, Minn., and Diane Jamison-Richards of Alexandria, Minn., and brothers Bob Hartzell of Leadville, Colo., and Deane Hartzell of Nashville, Tenn.

Services have been held.