“Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still.”
― William Penn, More Fruits of Solitude: Being the Second Part of Reflections and Maxims Relating to the Conduct of Human Life
We live in death’s shadow every day, but rarely acknowledge it. Occasionally, though, we (us budding journalists) are handed an assignment that forces us into this realization.
The assignment: “MU remembers,” in which the Missourian writes about the lives of students who have died in the past calendar year. In this case “the Missourian” refers to yours truly.
Never have I been more nervous for a story. Never have I so successfully procrastinated. Never have I picked up the phone and had it slip out of my hand due to the amount of sweat that had accumulated on my palm.
I did all of these things, but in the end shelved my nerves and made the first phone call.
It was to Kate Bauche, Event Coordinator at the rec. (“MU Student Recreation Complex” in print, but everyone says “the rec.”) She had supervised Kelly Needham, a wonderfully outgoing 21-year-old finance major and rising senior who was killed in a car crash last August.
She told me as much as she could about him, including about the time he goofed off with a power washer, and the rec staff captured it on camera. She was kind, open, and full of hilarious and touching stories. I listened, took careful notes, hung up the phone and sobbed.
Through phone calls, voicemails, email, and even (where it couldn’t be avoided) Facebook message, I contacted those people who would become my sources: Hannah Cusack, a close friend of Kelly’s; Christine Ricaña’s brother and father — the latter one of the most heartbreaking conversations on record between two people; Stephanie Schroder’s mother, Phyllis, whom I spoke with six or eight times; April Swagman, Rachel Winnograd, and Dr. Kenneth Sher, all friends and teachers of Stephanie’s; Mary Burgess, the principal of Cole Patrick’s elementary school; Isaac Justin, Cole’s friend-turned-brother, who bowled me over with his friendly and open demeanor.
Each of these people bared their hearts to me while I took notes.
As difficult as it was to listen, I cannot imagine the strength it took to discuss friends, daughters, sisters and students — people they had loved and lost. Many laughed, some cried, but all were forced to look death in the face and to remember what it had taken from them.
Through adjectives and through anecdotes I came to know Kelly, Christine, Stephanie and Cole. I can’t imagine why they died, what twisted logic allowed it to happen, but I can honestly say that the world in their absence is a bit darker.
The story, entitled “MU remembers lost students” in print and “MU remembers nine students who died in the past year” online, came out Friday, April 5. It corresponded with the “MU Remembers” event in Stotler Lounge that same day at 2 p.m.
That afternoon I received a text message from Mrs. Schroder. “Hi Claire, I really liked the article you wrote about Stephanie,” it said. “It was a wonderful tribute to her. Thanks! Phyllis”.
As long as I am a journalist (and probably even longer), I will save that text. We take difficult stories, we stare down death because, in the end, it’s worth it. Stephanie deserved a tribute; she deserved to be remembered. They all did.
My job was to listen, and to try to do them justice.