By all account, she was a young woman with a future. She went off to college, a good Midwestern private school. Joined a sorority. Made friends easily. Studied hard, but not too hard. Partied hard, but within reason. She wasn’t my best student, but she tried.
After graduation, she landed a job doing marketing for USA Today. Everything looked golden. Her future was waiting. All that imploded in the wee hours of a May morning when her car was rear ended by a truck on the Interstate north of Indianapolis. No one is exactly sure what happened, but the grief felt by hundreds of fellow students and family friends was undeniably real.
This weekend, her friends and family will mark the anniversary of a day when a young woman suddenly became past tense. Grief and disbelief still lingers in the air. She was too young for this to happen, everyone agrees. Far, far too young.
Her name was Sally and she shares an unfortunate anniversary with missing Cal Poly student Kristin Smart. Kristin disappeared from Cal Poly on May 25, 1996. Sally was killed in that accident on May 25, 1987.
In truth, I still see Sally in my mind. She visits regularly–quick, fleeting flashes of a smile as wide as the Wabash River. Always brushing back her long brown hair. I still hear her laugh. I still picture her, sitting in my office, complaining abut something. Snotty frat boys. Snotty sorority sisters. Classes that are too tough. Professors who are too tough.
A decade later, I have to shake my head to chase away the image. And the pain. But Sally will return eventually. She always does.
There were many students in the classroom during my time in academe. Sally certainly wasn’t at the top of the list when it came to grades, but this young woman had such a heart, such compassion for others. She tried to help other people, always the first to volunteer for a good cause. Even when she was complaining, Sally tried to see the positive–sometimes it just took her awhile to get there. She adored her siblings and worshipped her parents.
I was her academic adviser, a task that spawned repeated invitations from the parents to drive for an hour and visit the family’s posh Northside home. I finally agreed to visit, just so the invitations would stop. I felt like family by the end of the first hour.
For her junior year, Sally had to choose between a semester in New York or a semester in London. She pestered me constantly, as if this was some ultimate life-or-death decision. At that age, I guess it was. “Do London, ” I advised. “Go have fun.” She apparently did. For all my wisdom, I was rewarded with a T-shirt from the London Hard Rock Cafe.
Here’s the funny thing. It’s been more than a decade and I still have that shirt, wrapped in plastic, stashed away. I can’t bring myself to toss it–I never had a photo of Sally, so that faded shirt remains my only connection. Ten years later and I still wrestle with what happened.
I was only her academic adviser, a teacher for one class. In truth, I hardly knew Sally, but I knew what she was capable of, what the future offered. And how much so many of us lost because she wasn’t around any longer.
So take all that. Multiply it by a gazillion. Add another gazillion. Then maybe, just maybe, you’ll have some sense of what the family and friends of Kristin Smart are wrestling with one year after her disappearance. Grief and disbelief still lingers in the air. Kristin was too young for this to happen, everyone agrees. Far, far too young.
At least we know what happened to Sally. One year later, the Smarts are still trying to get basic answers, to find their daughter. They’ve been waiting for one incredibly long year for their own chance to say goodbye.
And to look back toward the future once more.
San Luis Obispo County Telegram-Tribune (May 1997)
Editor’s Note: As of September 7, 2020, the Smart family still waits for answers as to what happened to their daughter.