Principal William Young said the garden should prompt youths to consider their future, as well as remember the past.
By BOB JACKSON
HANOVERTON — Bob Sommers knelt, placed the roots of a red flower into the ground, and gently used his hands to cup soil over and around them. Then he stood, wiped dirt from his hands, and thought about the worst day of his life.
It was nearly 10 years ago when he received the gut-wrenching news that his 15-year-old son, Derek, was killed in an automobile accident.
“It happened right up the road,” said Sommers, pointing north toward state Route 9. “About a mile from here.”
The flower he’d planted was in memory of Derek, who was a sophomore at United Local High School when he died in the Nov. 12, 1997, accident. The school has a memorial garden outside the entrance to its auditorium, where flowers and shrubbery have been planted in memory of Derek and 28 other pupils who died over the years while enrolled there.
Some, like Derek, died as a result of automobile accidents. Others were taken by sickness. “Each one of them will be sorely missed,” said the Rev. Gabriel Mratz of nearby Phillips Christian Church, who delivered the day’s address.
William Young, high school principal, said the list dates back to 1958. The high school student council began planning and holding the memorial services in 2000, and has held them annually since then, always on Memorial Day weekend.
This year’s remembrance was Saturday morning, with nearly two dozen family members and friends attending. Many of them joined Sommers in quietly planting red flowers along the front edge of the memorial garden in honor of their lost children, grandchildren or siblings.
Besides the Rev. Mr. Mratz’s message, the ceremony included poetry readings and the playing of taps by student council members. Young said many people don’t realize that taps, a song generally associated with military funerals, has lyrics as well, beginning with the words, “Day is done, gone the sun.”
“Today we’ll be thinking about the days we had with our loved ones,” Young said.
He said that while the annual event is rooted in the tragic loss of so many young people, it has been a positive thing for the United Local community because it allows people to come together in love and support. It’s also a valuable lesson for today’s pupils — even the ones who may not have known any of those whose memories are honored in the garden.
“When you’re a teenager you think you’re indestructible,” said Young. “Something like this should cause kids to stop and think a little bit about some of the choices and decisions they make.”
Sommers, 58, of Salem, said he has attended all of the remembrance ceremonies. He appreciates the garden and the annual ceremony for keeping memories alive.
“It helps because one of the biggest fears that a parent has is that people are going to forget their child,” he said. “It’s nice to know that people haven’t forgotten.”
He said many of Derek’s former classmates still keep in touch with him, stopping by his house to talk and remember.
“I wish more schools would do something like this,” he said. “So many kids die while they are still in school. People need to remember.”