Last year I penned a piece that left off with me talking to my mother on the phone the morning of the ’99 Bonfire collapse. She was crying asking if I was OK, and I responded with “I’m fine.”
You can read that post here: http://www.storykeeping.com/sixteen-years-ago-tonight/ If you’re totally unfamiliar with the Bonfire collapse in ’99 you can click the video above.
Recalling that day still wrecks me a bit, and seventeen years later I am still “fine,” but the story does not end there.
In February of 1999 I’d lost one of my best friends since middle school, Mikey Schmidt. She was a freshman at Abilene Christian University yet she played a pivotal role in my Aggie story. At Texas A&M University students gather in the Academic Plaza the first Tuesday night of every month to honor students who’d passed away the previous month. The campus goes dark, silent, a 21 gun salute is fired, and a special version of “Taps” is played from the top of the Academic Building. Being a sleep-deprived freshman in the Corps, I spent my first few Silver Taps fighting to stay awake. The rifle volleys at Silver Taps hit a lot harder when they’re in honor of someone you lost. For me, that March ’99 Silver Taps was for Mikey. While I didn’t feel like I was all there, the value the Texas A&M culture places on a life really stuck to me from that point forward. That’s the Aggie Spirit, and is the reason I’ll always be proud to be an Aggie.
The fall of 1999 found me pulling out of scholastic probation, the freshmen in Company C-1 feared me (no really, that’s a good thing), I was in the best shape of my life, and I had more dates than I had Yell Practices and football games to take them to. I was cruising campus with a smile on my face and a quick “Howdy!” for anyone within a 10 yard radius. Life was looking up.
Late in the morning on November 18, 1999, after I got off the phone with my mother, I went back out to the Bonfire site. Most every class was cancelled but we wouldn’t have attended anyway. We stood at the perimeter ready to go in and help if we were needed. I couldn’t tell you what time we left later that day because time ceased to matter.
While I got to tell my mother “I’m fine,” there were eleven students who didn’t have that opportunity. The twelfth student to pass away, Tim Kerlee, Jr., the same student who directed first responders to save other Aggies’ lives before his own, was the only one to say goodbye to his parents.
In the days after the collapse a hush fell over the Texas A&M campus. The typical smiles and “Howdy”s were subdued by solemn respect for those grieving around us. As a community we responded the best way we knew.
In my poetry class the following semester I learned I had survivor’s guilt. I applied and was accepted as a Fish Camp (freshman orientation) counselor in Camp Kerlee — with Tim and Janice Kerlee, Tim, Jr.’s parents, honored as namesakes. Tim, Jr. had been their only child, but they quickly took us in as their own. Janice listened to my Corps stories and worried about my well-being. They led Bible studies and even hosted alcohol-free barn dances for A&M students. The people who’d felt the most pain responded with the greatest faith and love.
After a couple years the campus remained somber. Sometimes, if you want to see something happen, you have to do it yourself. In 2001 I realized I missed the energetic campus I knew prior to the collapse, and I recognized I needed to do something about it if I expected anything to change. I walked around campus smiling, saying “Howdy,” and doing any random act of kindness I could think of for those around me. There were a few other things stirring in my head as well:
- The best way to lead is by example
- The best form of advertising is word of mouth
- I couldn’t do this thing by myself
In spring 2002 I started a student organization called Ags of OAK – Open Acts of Kindness. Ags of OAK sought to inspire the Aggie Spirit through acts of kindness, campus service, and the promotion and support of all that fosters that spirit. That was our mission statement. We signed up for shifts in the busiest spots on campus so we could make the greatest impact possible on the student body. As with anything new, we had our struggles. At the end of the first semester three of my five officers quit because they were disillusioned by our inability to hold members accountable to their shifts. After the resigned officers left my apartment I sat in my room and wondered if I’d failed. Less than 30 minutes later I decided the mission was too important and began drafting new officer applications.
Facebook has solved the accountability problem as current students now post pictures of all the good they’re doing on campus during their shifts. They let me stay on their current member Ags of OAK group on Facebook, so while classes are in session I get lots of notifications. It’s awesome. You can check out their website here: http://agsofoak.weebly.com/
I’m currently a member of the Association of Personal Historians — a professional association for people dedicated to documenting life stories. At their events I’m often told it’s rare someone my age has a passion for such work. While I didn’t start StoryKeeping until 2009, I can trace the spirit of StoryKeeping back a decade earlier to 1999. It was at the age of 19 that I learned the value of a human life. In February and again in November that year I was knocked to my knees.
Yes, God, I am listening.
As I reflect on seventeen years ago tonight there are a couple truths ringing through my mind:
- It is not what life throws at us but how we respond that defines us.
- Sometimes “I’m fine” is the foundation we build upon.