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Remembering Bonfire: ‘Pray without ceasing’ helped Kerlees through grief

Remembering Bonfire: ‘Pray without ceasing’ helped Kerlees through grief

From the Twenty years later: Remembering Bonfire series
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In the first chapter of the book that emerged from her enormous grief, Janice Kerlee wrote that three words — from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians — came to mind in the frantic moments and hours after learning the severity of the injuries to her son Tim Jr.’s body 20 years ago. 

“Pray without ceasing.”

Janice and her husband, Tim Kerlee Sr., leaned on their family’s Christian faith as their son battled and ultimately succumbed to severe injuries sustained from his fall from the third tier of the A&M Bonfire structure as it collapsed on Nov. 18, 1999.

As Tim Jr. battled inside St. Joseph Hospital in Bryan the day after the collapse, they prayed. As it became clear he would not survive, they prayed. And one hour after his death, they prayed — with scores of Tim Jr.’s friends and other community members in a quickly put together memorial service for the hundreds who had come to support Tim and then to pay their last respects.

Tim Jr. was 17, a freshman, when he died at 8 p.m. on Nov. 19, 1999.

“From the moment of the doctor’s call, my every thought had become a plea to God,” she wrote in The Chance to Say Goodbye: Hope for Grieving Parents, the 2001 book that Janice said was her “grief work” response to the death of her child.

The Kerlees say that what has helped them through their grief is to tell stories about their son.

“I think one of the things that helped us heal was the willingness and ability to share,” Tim Sr. said at their home in Bryan, as their dogs, Angel and Precious, played and rolled around. He said that he and Janice have spoken at A&M Muster remembrance ceremonies all over the state — and at one in Louisiana — as part of their ongoing grieving and remembrance processes.

“His body may have died, but his spirit did not and his soul did not,” Janice said. “He’s been an inspiration to so many young people about how you should live. It’s important to tell the good stories and share the fond memories — it’s about not letting the memory of that person die.”

The Kerlees said that their son’s zeal and love of life was contagious. He was an Eagle Scout, and he put a priority on helping others.

“One of the things that was made very clear through all of the testimony was that Tim was always trying to help somebody or make ‘em laugh — one or the other, or maybe both,” Tim Sr. said, laughing himself.

That drive to help others proved itself as Tim Jr. directed emergency responders to assist those around him while he was trapped in the wreckage of the collapsed Bonfire structure. His instruction to “Help my buddies first” is inscribed on his portal at the Bonfire Memorial on campus.

“He pointed out five others that he could see from his vantage point,” Janice said. “Some of them survived. Tim was all about helping other people. He died the way he lived.”

Diana Fleming, a fellow member of Tim’s Corps of Cadets squadron, Squadron 16, said in a recent interview that she and Tim first met during freshman orientation in the summer of 1999.

“The strongest memory I have is that even until the end, Tim looked out for others,” Fleming said. “Tim’s memory is a part of my identity and my time at A&M.”

Faith and the work of grief became Janice’s life’s work. Part of their process, she said, was to move to the area in which their son died, leaving Bartlett, Tennessee, in 2000 and relocating to College Station.

“People asked, ‘Why would you want to go move to the place where your son died?’ And you would have had to be in that hospital room to understand — the power of God almost made the hair on your arms raise,” she said. “Afterwards, we independently came to the same conclusion that we were supposed to come to College Station and try to help the students heal from the Bonfire accident.”

For their first few years in College Station, Janice and Tim worked as campus ministry volunteers at A&M United Methodist Church. Janice decided to go to seminary and become a minister, and she attended the Perkins School of Theology at SMU in Dallas.

She worked as a pastor, then as a hospice chaplain.

“I think that was something that was really my niche, because I could relate to people’s pain in losing a loved one,” she said.

Janice’s book is filled with stories and accounts of how Tim Jr. lived and impacted others’ lives.

“When people leave us, they leave us with a legacy, and we ought to pass that legacy on,” she said. Tim Sr. quickly chimed in: “And he did leave one. Hearing all the testimonials people shared then and since from people in his short life — it was just amazing. People shared things we never knew anything about.”

Fleming, who is now with the U.S. Air Force, said the mention of an Eagle Scout or hearing particular songs brings memories of Tim to her mind.

“One of the things I most closely associate with Tim is his faith in Christ, a faith I share,” Fleming said. “The thing about grief is that it can change, but never truly go away ,,, yet there can be hope in grief, too. Hope doesn’t erase the pain or memories, but it is a promise of what is to come.”

One of Tim’s best friends from high school in southwest Tennessee, Jon Scharff, said that he carries a photo of Tim with him in his wallet. Scharff said that Tim’s friendship and example helped him to be more open and accepting of others.

With pictures and paintings of their son on the walls and filling their home, Janice and Tim Sr. recently reflected on the journey of the past two decades.

Janice said the support from A&M was robust for a decade, with invitations to events and other occasions. As time has gone on and administrations have changed, she said the connections to the university have lessened.

The Kerlees had Tim’s body cremated at his request. Family and friends spread his ashes at Philmont Scout Ranch in northeast New Mexico, as well as on the A&M campus.

Tim and Janice said that their son was courageous — not just in his final days, but throughout his life. They said they have strived to show similar courage and be willing to serve others even in the face of grief and loss.

“The biggest thing that has helped us is to do for others,” Tim Sr. said, “to take the emphasis off of ourselves and to put it on what they’re going through.”

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As the early morning Bonfire Remembrance Ceremony dissipated, several members of the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets’ Squadron 16 waited in line for a hug from Janice Kerlee. Kerlee’s son, Timothy Doran Kerlee Jr., was one of 12 Aggies killed 20 years ago in the Bonfire collapse. Kerlee said she appreciates the opportunity to hug and briefly visit with the current members of her late son’s squadron, along with other attendees.

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While back from Texas A&M on winter break during his freshman year in December 1998, Nathan Scott West wore his Corps of Cadets uniform to his home congregation, Bellaire United Methodist Church near Houston. The congregation, full of Aggies, feted one of its beloved sons. 

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