Janice Kerlee started this year on a new phase of her life, one she’d put on hold until she and husband Timothy Sr. could see that Texas A&M University was healing from the 1999 Bonfire collapse.
She’s becoming a minister.
Every week, Janice leaves her home in College Station — where the Kerlees moved in 2000 from Bartlett, Tenn. — to take classes at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
On weekends, she returns home to be with Tim Sr. and carry on the faith at A&M United Methodist Church, which they embraced as a second home in the years after the couple’s only son died.
Timothy Doran Kerlee Jr., 17, died the night of Nov. 19, 1999 — the day before his father’s birthday and the day after he was injured in the Bonfire collapse.
Five years after their son’s death, the Kerlees’ mission — to heal the community and students affected by the collapse with faith and a constant support system — has changed as those most affected have graduated and moved away.
For the first time since they moved to a home not far from Texas A&M, where their son was a member of the Corps of Cadets, the Kerlees aren’t putting up a student in their spare room.
“The tone of the whole campus has changed, and the students’ needs have changed,” Tim Sr. said in a recent interview. “We still have some contact with the Corps, and most of what we do now is more of an individual basis.
“But having them around has meant just as much to us as it has to them.”
On a trip to Montana and Arkansas in high school, Tim Jr. — an Eagle Scout who had earned 15 additional merit badges to receive a Silver Palm — stopped in the middle of a hike through the Ozarks. He spotted a father and young son who had fallen behind the rest of the Scouts and, dropping his knapsack, turned back and shouldered the boy’s load so they could all make it to the top for a view of the valley below.
“Tim was always doing for other people,” his father, 61, recalled from the couple’s home near Sorority Row in College Station.
That never failed to be true of the boy who skipped first grade and, his parents said, could have chosen any university he wanted. He put A&M at the top of his list when he and his parents were visiting 21 colleges in the fall of 1998. A&M never moved below No. 1, Tim Sr. said, from the moment his son stepped on campus and reveled in how friendly everyone was.
By the time he arrived as a new Aggie in the fall of 1999, Tim Jr. had earned 45 semester hours through advanced placement classes at Germantown High School in Tennessee and credit-by-exam during his new student orientation at A&M. That was enough to make the 17-year-old mechanical engineering major a sophomore, though among the Corps’ Squadron 16 Flying Falcons he was a “fish.”
On the day he died, members of Tim Jr.’s Corps squadron presented the cadet with his Corps “brass” — signs of his advanced rank — and senior boots, telling him he had earned it long ago but they had just been waiting for his classmates to catch up.
In his high school yearbook, a motto appears near Tim Jr.’s picture: “It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing.” It’s a song that captures his spirit, his parents said. The Germantown Methodist Church’s monthly swing dances were Tim Jr.’s favorite, they said.
“It means that you’ve got to put energy and pep into everything you do,” Janice said. “Tim one time told me, ‘I don’t know why everyone thinks I’m so special. I just do what everybody should do.’ I told him, ‘Son, that “should” is the operative word.’”
‘God was in that room’
Tim Jr. was on the third tier of the 59-foot Bonfire stack at 2:42 a.m. Nov. 18, 1999, securing logs with wire. He had moments before traded places in the swing seat with a buddy, who would guide the logs into place.
That buddy, Derrek Woodley, survived the collapse with broken bones and a concussion. He is now in the Air Force with a wife and young child.
Inscribed on Tim Jr.’s portal in the Bonfire Memorial, which will be dedicated on the campus Polo Fields next week, is something he told rescuers while he lay in the pile of logs:
“Help my buddies first, I’m OK.”
Though he was partially crushed between massive logs, Tim Jr. pointed out others he could see in the crumpled Bonfire stack before he allowed rescue workers to pull him free. Some of those fellow Aggies survived, though with injuries.
The first call the Kerlees received about the collapse was from a friend, saying their son had been hurt at Bonfire and might have a broken arm. By the time Janice emerged from the shower at their home in Tennessee, Tim Sr. had gotten a second call from a doctor who was about to take their son into surgery. The father was on the side of the bed, sobbing.
Tim Jr. was at St. Joseph Regional Health Center in Bryan, in shock and badly hurt with a crushed pelvis and a severed artery in his leg.
The Kerlees arrived at their son’s side in the hospital by 2 p.m. that day. The severed artery in his thigh couldn’t be repaired because so many bones were broken and shattered. Early the next morning, the parents told their young son he wasn’t going to make it.
There was a hand signal Janice had long forgotten about that the Kerlees practiced with Tim Jr. as a child when they were in church or a place it wasn’t appropriate to talk aloud. One member of the Kerlee family would grasp another by the hand and squeeze three times in succession to say “I love you.”
On Nov. 19, when Tim Jr. couldn’t talk and couldn’t keep his eyes open as he grew weaker from his injuries, his mother felt him squeeze. She suddenly remembered the signal, which her mother had taught her as a little girl.
“Are you trying to tell me you love me?” she asked her son, tears clouding her eyes as he nodded.
Hundreds of friends passed through Tim’s hospital room that day, crowding the hospital lobby to await news as his condition worsened. It was, Janice remembered later, a chance for them all to say goodbye.
“God was in that room,” she said. “And, after Tim died, even though our eyes were swollen shut with crying, we had a deep peace. You can’t imagine having such a great peace after such a great loss.”
A changing role
Late that night, Tim Jr. became the 12th and final Aggie to die from injuries suffered in the collapse. The Kerlees emerged from his hospital room an hour later to lead a memorial service for their son. They said they didn’t want all the students and friends who had waited with them to leave without a chance to heal together.
It was the first of many biblical sessions they would take part in with students who had known and loved Tim Jr. or who had felt the shocking aftereffects of the Bonfire tragedy.
“We just know that we’re supposed to be here, and we’ll find something to do,” Janice, 52, remembers telling people when they first arrived in College Station. “It was just that trust in God that this was where we’re supposed to be and things would happen.”
They spearheaded an effort through A&M United Methodist’s college ministries group to set up a college council to help students get what they most needed and wanted from their church experience. They led Bible studies on the Corps Quad in the early years while there was still room, then in their home until it was too difficult to advertise the weekly gatherings.
Texas A&M administrators and Corps of Cadets leaders would call on the Kerlees whenever a student with a broken heart needed some step-in parents. The Kerlees have hugged away the hurts of many over the years, taking students to the airport, the hospital or to difficult doctor’s appointments, and counseling students through the grief of losing a loved one.
In 2003, the Kerlees were named the university’s Parents of the Year, a special honor for a couple with no children attending A&M.
They taught Sunday school and helped organize youth mission trips until the students took ownership of the college council.
The Kerlees said they knew eventually things would change on campus as the years passed, and with that they would have a new role or find theirs shrinking.
They say they’ll go wherever Janice’s job as a minister takes them after she is ordained in a few years. They don’t always have to go to the yearly Bonfire memorials on campus, they said, and they won’t always live where their son lost his life.
It will take a few years for Janice Kerlee to finish seminary, her head buried in books and notes when she’s at home with her retired husband. It’s a change in the couple’s life that isn’t without its upsets: Both spend the weeks while she’s away missing one another, especially as Nov. 18 and Nov. 19 approach.
“You take it one step at a time,” Janice said. “I learned a long time ago not to plan it all out, because you never know what life can hold.”
Whether the Kerlees remain a College Station staple — always available to lead students to God and help them find their own personal glory — or leave in a year with a changing job, they say they’ll always value the place their son chose as his home.
“We love it here, and this will always be an important place in our lives,” Tim Kerlee Sr. said. “The acceptance that we’ve felt from the people in this town, the people on campus, everything. ... It will always be special to us.”