The last time Nicholas Blanco saw his friend Jesse Valencia, it was a gray and rainy day, just like the weather on Monday.
“I dropped him off at class, and he walked away,” Blanco said. “It was actually on a day just like this.”
Blanco memorialized Valencia at MU Remembers on Monday afternoon. The university-sponsored event honored the 11 graduate and undergraduate students who died in 2004.
The warm air and steady rainfall mirrored the event’s somber yet celebratory tone.
“It was the right balance,” professor Angela Speck said. “It wasn’t too somber, but an event like this can’t be too happy, either.”
Speck came to memorialize Valencia, who was killed in June. She said she also attended for Melvin Mora, a physics student and Army reservist who died in Iraq that same weekend. Mora was the first Columbia resident to die in Iraq.
Speck said physics students organized the Melvin Y. Mora Scholarship Fund in his honor, and Speck shaved her head in December to raise $1,200 for the fund.
“He was very keen on being able to show science to other people … so I think it’s nice to have something to enable other students,” said Speck, who now has a short, wispy layer of black hair.
Family members and friends of the former students listened to piano renditions of the “Forrest Gump Suite” and “On Eagle’s Wings” before the ceremony. Professors introduced themselves to some of the parents, and several students hugged family members and each other.
Some were still wearing their backpacks, and one girl was carrying a cup from the Heidelberg restaurant.
“It’s nice to see some of his friends that he introduced me to,” said Annalee Gamm, cousin of student Charles Gamm, who died last year. “It was nice to bring everyone together to share stories.”
Charles Gamm was a freshman when he died in a car accident in April 2004. Annalee Gamm grew up with him in Kansas City and said they stayed close after he moved to the St. Louis area. She attended the ceremony with her mother and her best friend.
Cathy Scroggs, vice chancellor of student affairs, presided at the event. She made a few opening comments and introduced remarks by MU Chancellor Brady Deaton. Soloist LaMont Walker sang two selections: “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art.”
The focus of the event, however, was the reading of the names. Missouri Student Association President Anton Luetkemeyer read off the names of the nine undergraduate students who died, and Graduate Professional Council President Nathan Brummel read the names of the two graduate students.
The only sounds during the moment of silence after the reading were the sniffling and wiping of runny noses and the rattling of what appeared to be an air vent.
Communications professor Michael Porter read the poem “Elegy” before Walker led everyone in singing MU’s alma mater to end the ceremony. Afterward, immediate family, extended family, professors and students shared cookies, juice and memories.
Former student Sam Woodell’s grandmother, Joan Woodell, said she appreciated the service even as she mourned.
“I was very close to Sam — he was my only grandson,” she said through tears. “When he died, it broke our hearts.”
Through their sadness, the family did experience some joy. Kathy Sullivan-Turner, Sam Woodell’s mother, proudly displayed her son’s framed dean’s list certificate, which was given to her that day. At that point, it was hard to determine whether her tears were of sorrow or pride, or both.
Valencia’s mother, Linda Valencia, also attended the event. She and Valencia’s two sisters, Maria and Rachel, drove to Columbia from Perryville, Ky.
“I always drive,” Linda Valencia said. “Unlike Jesse, I would never get on a plane — I’m too scared. He loved to fly.”
The visit for MU Remembers was the first time Linda Valencia allowed her daughters to come with her to Columbia.
“Rachel, the youngest, was really excited about it,” Linda Valencia said. “She’d seen pictures of the campus and said she wanted to see it for herself.”
Linda Valencia said Maria wanted to attend, too, but got upset and changed her mind right before the trip. Linda Valencia said after she spoke to Maria before leaving Friday morning, Maria changed her mind.
“It’s been good for her,” Linda Valencia said of the visit. “She realizes why (Jesse) liked it so much here.”
The flags in front of university buildings were flown at half-staff on Monday. Additionally, each former student’s name, date of birth and date of death will be mounted on a plaque outside Stotler Lounge in Memorial Union.