The Colgate Scene
January 2001
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Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
Flowers at accident scene Four people were killed in a one-car accident on Oak Drive November 11.

     First-year student Katie Almeter, along with two hometown friends from Norwich, Hobart-William Smith students Emily Collins and Rachel Nargiso, and Kevin King of Hudson Valley Community College, were all pronounced dead at the scene. Elke Wagle '04 was seriously injured but is expected to make a full recovery. Junior Robert Koester and Chris Rea, who is not a Colgate student, were treated and released. Koester was charged with driving while intoxicated and four counts of second degree vehicular manslaughter.

     As the campus and surrounding communities struggled with the events, staff and faculty made time for students in huge Chapel gatherings and in smaller classroom settings.

A chapel meeting

by Jim Terhune

Like all of you, I'm not sure how to respond to this. I feel a great many emotions and I am struggling to make sense of them. I do know that as painful as this is, there is real comfort in coming together today. Our community died a little bit on Saturday, but we can all take strength from the comfort of the others in this room and around this campus.

     Like everyone else on this stage, I wish I had the words that could ease the pain and loss that we all feel right now. I don't. When it comes to understanding this, I'm afraid the only thing I am sure of is that this can't be understood. Young people aren't supposed to die. You're supposed to be here to study, and make friends, and grow up together. College is about beginnings, not endings. But here we are.

     I want to speak briefly about two people. The first is me. Not that I, as an individual, matter too much in this equation. Rather, I, as a member of this community, want to share with you some of my feelings about this, and about all of you.

     Since the moment my phone rang shortly after 2 a.m. on Saturday I have been wrestling with three competing emotions: sadness, fear and anger. To be honest, I am not capable of speaking about the sadness that I feel. I have come to realize that my sorrow is so overwhelming that I simply won't allow myself to really feel it. I have to keep going. I have to be strong. There is so much to do. The sadness is too intense -- I can't go there.

     My fear grew out of uncertainty. In those first sleepless hours when all that was known was that this horrible accident had occurred but we could not identify the people involved, it was a fear of who had been hurt, who had died. But I also am scared by the reality that carloads of students make that same trip, under the same circumstances, all the time, and only luck has prevented this tragedy from happening sooner. And I am scared for Rob. I'm sorry (particularly for those of you who know him well), but I am not prepared to apologize for him. But I know that there was no malice here, and that there but for the grace of God go so many of us.

     And I am angry. Not at any individual. I am angry at the senseless loss and the waste of it all. But I am also angry about the culture here that made victims of these people about whom we care so deeply. A culture that threatens all of us and what we have really come here to do. A culture that we have to come together to change. We have to do all that we can to see this doesn't happen here ever again.

     Forgive my indulgence.

     The other person I want to talk about is Katie Almeter. I was one of the fortunate people here who had the opportunity to get to know Katie a little. In fairness, probably very little. And yet, as those of you who know Katie well will attest, you really didn't need to spend a great deal of time with Katie to get a good sense of who she was. She was right out there, open, and warm. I am struck by the number of conversations I have had with people from West Hall over the past two days who said how much she meant to them. People who have talked about how they confided in Katie and she helped them in ways that probably nobody else knew. We were all very fortunate to know her and it is just so unfair to lose her this way.

     On the day that the Class of 2004 arrived here, we came together in this Chapel and I told you a little about your classmates based on the admissions essays you had written. This afternoon, as I thought about what to say here today, I read Katie's essay and was struck by a portion that seems so apropos that I thought I would share it with you.

     She was describing an incident in which she had been quite sick when she was in high school and she begins by writing, "It was an average November day and I was an average freshman girl." She went on to describe her recovery from the illness and the people who helped her; "especially the nurses who brought Popsicles." And she concluded, as I will, with the following paragraph that I think speaks to all of us today.

     She writes: "My experience taught me a lot of things. I learned to trust. I had to place my life in a lot of different people's hands. I learned to take more risk and that sometimes the impossible can be possible. I learned to be more optimistic and that if I try hard at something, I can usually accomplish it. I learned that my experiences are relative and seem of less importance when considering other situations. Overall, my incident made me a stronger person. I certainly wouldn't want to go through it all again, but I am glad of what it has made me today."

Terhune is dean of first-year students.

Et in Arcadia ego

by Frederick Luciani

I learned of the car accident that took the lives of a Colgate student and three other young people, and gravely injured another Colgate student, the way that much of the university did -- through an e-mail message sent on a gray Saturday afternoon to the campus community. My sense of sorrow was sharpened by the fact that among the names of those involved was that of a student in one of my classes this semester.

     On Monday it was impossible to conduct business as usual. I tried in vain to stay on task in my 9:30 class, thinking that normality was perhaps what the students and I needed most. But in the 11:30 class (in which a certain empty seat could not be ignored), we just talked about the accident. I had nothing wise to say. I got the conversation going, awkwardly at first, but then my students opened up and spoke with emotion and compassion. My Western Traditions class at 2:00 went much the same way, although our conversation had some wisdom to lean on -- that of a pair of parables in the Gospel According to Luke, which happened to fall in that day's reading assignment. The Good Samaritan spoke to us about responsibility, the Prodigal Son about forgiveness and redemption.

     "We feel so safe in this place," one student said. "We just don't think that anything like that can happen to us here." Another student echoed that idea in another way. Even in this idyllic setting, he noted, the shadow of death is not absent: et in Arcadia ego.

     This student had a particular reason to have that phrase in mind. Along with his classmates in a freshman seminar taught by my Western Traditions colleague Janet Godwin, he was in final rehearsals for Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia. He had mentioned to me early in the semester that his class would be performing a reading of that wonderful play, and from time to time had given me progress reports. When I mentioned this to Janet, she graciously invited me to attend the reading and preceding dinner.

     The reading fell at the end of the sad week that followed the car accident. The players and audience gathered at Merrill House, on the first wintry evening of the season. Outside, the campus was lightly dusted with snow; inside, the mood was quiet, but convivial. Faculty and students shared a fine dinner and then carried their chairs into the Music Room where a table and some chairs served as a simple stage.

     Stoppard's play is set in an English country house in alternating time periods and deals with many things: Romantic gardens and poetry, Newtonian physics and Chaos Theory, the rivalries and rewards of scholarship, the brightness and yearning of youth, the loss of young life. The play is challenging; many of us referred frequently to the synopsis with which we had been provided. But the play also rewards close attention, and, as I became absorbed in the layered complexity of the story, I lost any sense of time. At the end of the reading, which the players performed beautifully, the applause was warmly appreciative. After handshakes and congratulations, we dispersed into the frosty night.

     It was a remarkable week at Colgate, a week of collective mourning and self-assessment. Yet, for me, at least, and those others fortunate to be part of the evening at Merrill House, it was a week that ended in happiness. Yes, death haunts even this beautiful place, but the best Colgate is about life -- not only the exuberant life of the young, but also the demanding life of the mind, a life that tempers the spirit for adversity and offers consolation in misfortune.

     When in Arcadia, the young student Thomasina expresses her grief over the loss of the great treasures of civilization of the past. Her tutor Septimus responds: "We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it . . ."

Luciani is associate professor of romance languages and literatures.
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