Column: Unimaginable tragedy brings positivity to lightThe call woke me up on Monday morning.
By: Dustin Monke, The Dickinson Press
The call woke me up on Monday morning.
“Did you hear what happened?” the caller asked.
“What happened?” I responded in an annoyed and groggy state.
“Three DSU softball players went out last night and haven’t been seen since,” the caller responded.
That woke me up.
“OK,” I said with pause. “Who are they?”
When I heard the names of Dickinson State student-athletes Kyrstin Gemar, Ashley Neufeld and Afton Williamson, the first thought that went through my head was, “Oh. I’m sure they’ll show up with one heck of a story to tell.”
When I got off the phone with my friend, I was certain the ordeal would be resolved by the time I got into work.
I never expected that over the course of the next four days, I would be covering the saddest, most difficult story in my young journalism career.
On Thursday afternoon, I sat with hundreds of others inside crowded Stickney Auditorium attending a memorial service for the three women who tragically died in a bizarre automobile accident on what was supposed to be a relaxing late-night stargazing road trip.
On Monday afternoon, no one knew that’s where they’d be.
All anyone was concerned about was finding their friends.
Throughout the day, the gravity of the situation continued to build as the women remained missing.
Lenny Gemar, a man I met through his assistance to The Dickinson Press as a freelance photographer covering the nationally renowned Blue Hawk softball team, phoned me before he got on a plane for North Dakota.
“No news, Lenny,” was all I could painfully tell this man I have come to consider a friend.
That afternoon, search parties were formed, law enforcement officials scrambled to find leads or any traces to where the women might be.
Worried students blitzed Facebook and tried to form makeshift search parties.
The text message tone on my cell phone, as I’m assuming many others, blipped at a consistent pace.
At an emotional Monday night prayer service, the campus community held its collective breath and tried to stay strong for friends and teammates.
The next day was filled with even more apprehension as the hours passed and no news came in. The parents of the women had all arrived and met with the softball team and other friends of their daughters.
Prayers were said, tears were shed and hugs served as a shoulder for many to cry on as they waited for their friends to walk back into their lives safe and sound.
No one ever experienced that moment.
By Tuesday evening, the worst fears of a community were realized as law enforcement officials announced that they had discovered the women trapped inside Gemar’s submerged car in a stock pond about 12 miles northwest of Dickinson.
Less than two hours later, I stood in the center of a packed DSU Student Center ballroom with hundreds for a second prayer service.
The mood was heartbreak.
Still, I couldn’t help but think that only in the most trying of times, and only in this community, would you see people banding together like this to support a handful of citizens, many of whom they do not know, who have been left completely devastated by such an unfortunate set of events.
By early Wednesday morning, sleepy Dickinson was inundated with national news reporters, as well as their Canadian counterparts.
It was also flooded with support.
Sympathy poured into DSU from across the country.
Former DSU volleyball coach Dave Moody said he heard from players he hadn’t spoken with in years, all of them sending condolences to Dickinson. Many teachers and coaches had similar stories.
A friend of mine created honorary softball helmet stickers, which he gave to parents of the three women on Thursday.
Student organizations made t-shirts to honor the memory of the three women and sold them for $3, at a loss, with proceeds directly benefitting the families.
Hundreds sold out in minutes. More t-shirts were made for Thursday’s memorial. Those too were gone in a flash.
At the afternoon memorial service, the t-shirts with the phrase, “Birds of a feather flock together” on the front and, in large letters, “D3” and “R.I.P Lady Hawks” printed on the back, seemed to be everywhere as families and friends remember happier times.
Laughter boomed throughout the auditorium more than once during the service, a sign that even through this trying ordeal, things are getting better.
DSU senior third baseman and co-team captain Jody Lantz joked about her teammates. She recalled a time when Gemar — using her nicknames “Mama K” and “Beyonce” in nearly every reference — had to ride a bicycle around the softball field that evoked laughter from the softball team and told a colorful, good-hearted joke about Neufeld that went back to the phrase, “Rack ‘em up!” a joke the Blue Hawks use in each game.
Lantz, one of DSU’s top hitters, and head coach Kristen Fleury both recalled how quick of an impression the newcomer Williamson had made because of her wicked changeup pitch.
“It made them (other players) look like pathetic ballerinas,” Fleury said to a roomful of laughter.
Bev Neufeld spoke about her daughter’s bright smile and Lenny Gemar urged everyone in attendance to follow the lyrics of, “Live Like You Were Dying” by Tim McGraw, a song he remembers listening to while driving to North Dakota with his daughter.
Williamson’s stepfather, Fred Hutton, thanked the university, community and law enforcement officials on behalf of the parents and Jody Teague, Williamson’s cousin, shared a light-hearted story about a baseball she picked up for a young Afton at a Colorado Rockies game. That baseball, Teague believes, may have been the basis of her cousin’s love of the sport.
By the end of the service, the darkness began turning into light.
Players still wept for their fallen teammates, and friends still held each other tight with the hopes that perhaps soon the pain would subside.
One day it will.
In a few months, the Blue Hawk softball team will take the field at Gress Complex.
Ash won’t be there. Beyonce won’t be there. Afton won’t be there.
But, as Lantz said during Thursday’s service, the Blue Hawks will still be “the best team out there.”
Because unlike their opponents, DSU will have 12 players on the field.
Monke is the Sports Editor of The Dickinson Press and covers Dickinson State athletics. Read his blog at www.areavoices.com/monke.