First Place Writing – Editorials


Remember the lives but ask why they were lost

A letter from the editor-in-chief
Originally published in the Kentucky Kernel

Last year, Thomas Byers III was hit by a train. The 19-year-old was running from police at a party when he crossed the tracks near Virginia Avenue and died.

When I sat down with his friends, they told me about a guy who decorated his dorm room with Christmas lights and disco balls. They told stories about how he would talk the Chipotle manager in his hometown into giving all of his friends free burritos.

He made people smile, they said.

When Tommy’s friends remember him, they don’t remember a scared, intoxicated kid who ran from police at a party. They remember a lively person with enthusiasm and the ability to make others laugh.

Though I never met Tommy Byers, that’s how I remember him, too.

And when the families of Tevis Shaw, Lindsey Harp and Lauren Fannin remember their loved ones, they don’t remember them for the circumstances surrounding their deaths. They remember the people they knew by the memories of time spent with them.

The truth is, I drink. I’ve had too much to drink. And I’ve made bad decisions when I’ve had too much to drink.

When I talked to Tevis’ mother, Katherine Shaw, last week, she told me something that resonated.

“All of us have been there,” she said. “It’s just by chance that any of us haven’t had some sort of incident because of that.”

It’s true. How many times have each of us just been lucky?

It’s often not until a tragedy happens that we start to reflect on our own behavior, our own decisions, and realize how easily it could have been us.

When I called Wolfe County Coroner Frank Porter to get the results of the toxicology reports in Shaw’s death, he told me the same thing. Though he knew that almost everyone who comes to the gorge drinks – including Shaw and his friends, he said – he didn’t want to release the reports.

“It’s not that I don’t want to release the information, it’s just the family is entitled to privacy,” he said. Releasing the results was not going to bring Tevis back, he said.

Porter sincerely wanted to protect the family, but so many more people can be protected if they are armed with information.

I understand why there are people who didn’t want this story to run about these students drinking before they died – I’ve gotten calls and e-mails from most of them. They remember their friend, brother or sister, niece or nephew, son or daughter as the talented writer who loved the outdoors. Or as the pharmacy student who scored in the 97th percentile in the nation on the PCAT and was about to graduate. Or as the nurse who had just graduated and gotten a job in Kansas City, who had a fiancé and a life to plan.

But in a society that encourages open discussion and in a campus community that thrives on knowledge and debate, shouldn’t we be able to do both: remember the people they were and still ask questions?

No one blames Tevis or Lindsey or Lauren. And no one believes their blood-alcohol levels were the only factors in their deaths. But now, every time I pick up a drink that should probably be my last, I think about what other circumstances may happen that night. No one can predict the weather, and we can’t predict events that may go on around us. But we can try to be prepared for what could happen.

This isn’t a lecture. This isn’t even a warning. This is real life, and real lives that ended too soon.

Tommy Byers changed my life. Tevis, Lauren and Lindsey helped shape it. I hope they can do the same for others.