One year ago a Brookings teenager died

Todd Vanderwerff

Todd Vanderwerff

On Feb. 12, 2002, John Ellsbury, a senior at Brookings High School, died after a tragic car accident.

We know how this story goes. Community pulls together. Family and friends mourn. People bring over snack trays to help with the grieving.

But in John’s case, rumors settled in around his death like scavengers, hungry for something to build increasingly elaborate stories around.

You see, John Ellsbury’s car ran into Harding Hall. He died after he ran off an icy street and into a brick wall. The place where they fixed the wall is still a little discolored.

And in all of the newspapers, one sentence rose to define John Ellsbury to the rumor-mongers.

“There were no skid marks.”

Based on that one sentence, false histories sprang up. John Ellsbury was troubled. John Ellsbury was heart-sick. John Ellsbury was a wanna-be terrorist.

But the rumors may be wrong.

Meet John Ellsbury.

“The first time I ever talked to John, like had an (actual) conversation with him, he was talking about how to change the world. He kept talking about controlled environments and how it would make the world a better place. Even though I argued with him then, when I went home that night, I thought about it and realized just how right he was.”

-an excerpt from a letter in a scrapbook compiled for the Ellsbury family by John’s classmates.

The first family member you meet when you visit the Ellsbury house is Arca, an Australian Shepherd, who barks excitedly at all visitors, practically rising up off of the floor on her hind legs to greet them. She runs between the door and Susan Ellsbury, who is trying desperately to calm her dog down.

Susan Ellsbury is a warm and friendly woman who invites you into her home, which somehow manages to be both cozy and spacious, cluttered and organized.

You see the senior photo of John dancing with Arca, smiling at her with glee.

Susan’s husband Mike is a soft-spoken man with a firm handshake. He has a Santa Claus beard and an easy half-smile. He is an entomologist with USDA.

John was the couples’ only child. When they talk about him, they mist up slightly, the gleam of tears adding punctuation to their smiles.

They talk about how gifted John was. He could pick up things quickly.

“He couldn’t even read, but he could listen and watch the fingers and play those songs,” Susan says, recalling the beginning of John’s infatuation with the piano beginning at the age of five.

He also played goalie for years on the Brookings hockey team and he played soccer.

Susan’s eyes grow sad and her voice wavers while talking about John.

“The saddest thing about losing him is losing the potential he had … We were just beginning to realize what was there.”

“Through all of this, John has taught me two things: Not to take my life for granted and to show people how you rally feel because if you don’t tell them how you really feel, you may never get the chance. I know that if I had another chance to talk to John that I would tell him how much he meant to me, and how good he made me feel.”

-another letter from the Ellsburys’ scrapbook.

Robbie Cotner was John’s best friend. He is a freshman at SDSU, majoring in mechanical engineering and he looks younger than he really is. But when you talk to him about John, his experiences betray his age.

At the time of his death, John left an extremely complicated model helicopter unfinished. In the hours after John’s death, Robbie offered to help Mike finish the helicopter. The offer forged a strong relationship.

Robbie moved in with the Ellsburys shortly after his graduation from high school, and then permanently to attend SDSU.

“I think (being here) is helpful. We don’t talk about it much, but it’s nice for me to be around here,” he said.

Robbie actually saw the accident scene, but only the police cars, not who was involved. He found out John was hurt later, but didn’t know about his death until the next day at school .

“I missed first period so I didn’t hear the announcement on the thing and I walked in and everyone was really quiet,” he says.

He didn’t believe it at first. Who could believe that their friend wouldn’t come walking through the doors of the school and smile ever again?

Robbie has learned and coped with the help of the Ellsburys. Their home has become his.

“When something big happens like this, you don’t tend to care about all the little things any more,” he says.

“A male driver crashed into the side of Harding Hall after going approximately 60 mph down Rotunda Lane, according to student UPD officer Joe Haerter. Haerter said the man ‘wasn’t doing too good’ when rescuers extracted him from the vehicle. At the time the Collegian went to press, the cause of the accident was still unknown.”

-report on the accident that claimed John Ellsbury’s life in the Feb. 12, 2002 issue of the Collegian.

The Collegian never ran a follow-up on their Harding Hall crash photo package. All most students saw was the twisted wreck of a car.

Add the mention of no skid marks in the Argus Leader and you have a recipe for student gossip. Many now accept the idea that John Ellsbury killed himself as fact.

The Ellsburys don’t believe so. Here’s why.

John was returning home from a robotics club meeting on the SDSU campus and was traveling down Rotunda Lane when he had the accident. The road seems like a thru-street, even though it is not.

It seems likely that John was aiming for 12th Ave. to get off campus. If he made the mistake of believing the street was a thru-street, he would have crashed into Harding Hall.

But surely John would have seen the stop sign warning drivers?

Perhaps not. The Ellsburys assert that John was not the world’s most careful driver. He often drove fast and didn’t pay attention. He also rarely wore his seat belt.

It is possible that John Ellsbury was not paying attention to his driving and speeding. In that case, it seems easy to miss the stop sign on a road that can easily be mistaken for a thru-street.

Despite all of this, suicide still seems likely.

But John called his parents shortly before the accident (Mike Ellsbury believes he may have been on the phone with John at the time of the accident). The time of the accident has been fixed at 6:18 p.m., precisely when John’s cell phone went dead and roughly when his phone call with Mike abruptly ended in silence.

John called to tell his parents he was sorry he was late, and tell them he’d be home soon.

John had also just received two lucrative scholarships to the University of Nebraska, a school he dreamed of attending close to his grandparents.

But why didn’t John slam on the brakes once he realized he had left the road, when he felt the bump of the curb beneath his tires?

By the time John had jumped the curb, he could have swerved right to avoid a tree, or left into Harding Hall. John possibly made an instinctual decision and swerved left.

In addition to all of this, the roads were icy and traffic was sparse. That portion of campus is dimly lit. The conditions were prime for an accident featuring a driver who wasn’t especially careful.

It seems that someone intent on committing suicide, he or she would have been focused on his task, not making calls on his cell-phone.

Given this, it’s likely that John Ellsbury simply had an accident. It was simply a cruel act of fate.

“His hobbies were ice hockey, kneeboarding, water and snow skiing and computers. He was learning to fly a radio controlled helicopter he had built. When at the family farm in Fairbury (Neb.) he liked cutting wood, driving the jeep and spraying weeds. His future plans included majoring in computer engineering at the University of Nebraska.”

-an excerpt from John Ellsbury’s obituary

Regardless of the cause, the Ellsburys still lost their son.

So how do you cope? How do you live? How do you get by?

The couple doesn’t know, but they’re learning. Day by plodding day.

It has been a year since the death of their only child, and they are learning to have a new relationship with John. They believe he is still with them, still in their hearts.

“There is no doubt that God took him. God gave him to us and now he’s with God,” Susan says, her hands working their way through Arca’s soft fur.

The Ellsburys are living their lives again. They have both returned to work, Mike with his bugs and Susan in Madison, where she works as a French teacher.

They do not have regrets. They spent wonderful times together as a family. Robbie spent wonderful times with him as a friend. They toured France, watched movies, built things, visited family, made it through one day after another, knowing deep inside of themselves that they were loved by each other.

They are living. They are surviving. It is what John would want.

“Your loved one wouldn’t want you not to go on and lead good lives,” Mike says.

Having Robbie in the house has helped them. The three have formed a strong bond and it will carry them through.

Susan and Mike may never understand why John is gone, but they can be thankful for the moments they had.

“I think that’s what happens to young people. They move beyond …” Susan begins. She is talking about how John was ready to begin his own life, but her words strike at something deeper and she falls silent, letting the words drift like smoke through the evening air.

“There are too many positives and negatives for any one human to understand and many more issues fall in the middle. Because of this immense concept, both best and worst can be used to describe our world. There’s no way to measure either way. All that is known is that both good and bad exist. One may focus on one or the other, playing the optimist or the pessimist, but really the wisest position is to accept both but to see to it that our aim is always to the best. This defines humanity. As long as imperfection exists, the potential for good will stand solid.”

-from a paper written by John Ellsbury on Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities

Ultimately, John Ellsbury cannot be brought back to life in the length of a newspaper article. But by seeing his small smile in photographs, and hearing the testimony of his loved one, he becomes a real person, not simply a rumor.

This is why it is important that you know John Ellsbury. He was a young man full of promise. He held a shimmering future in his hands for an instant, only to see it slip between his fingers like water.

Some good has come from this death. The Ellsburys are closer as a couple and Robbie has become a close friend to both of them. They are still a family, still full of love.

We are all given brief seconds in the span of history to scratch upon the vast wall of time. We make our mark, then fade into obscurity. We must remain diligent and revisit the John Ellsburys of the world to ensure that they do not fall victim to ill repute or the black mark of a bad name.

This article cannot resurrect John Ellsbury, but it can give him a voice for a few moments. He can tell us one more time to be good and kind to each other, for that is what really matters.

“You can’t change what is.” -Mike Ellsbury

In the Ellsburys’ backyard is a garden, where Susan and Mike keep various kinds of flowers in all sizes and colors. In the spring and summer, they come back to life, rich with moisture from the winter snow, spreading their soothing scents through the air.

In the past, the garden was a tangled mess of plants, each color fighting for prominence and position in a vast landscape of bright hues.

A few weeks before his death, John suggested to his mother that she plant the garden in levels so each level would be fully in bloom at different times in the summer.

The Ellsburys have done what John suggested. Their garden will sing with color, standing in tribute to the years they spent with their son, seeming to encompass both no time at all and the breadth of eternity.

The lilies are beneath the snow right now, but they will bloom again in time and fill the air with their sweet smell.

Everything will be new again.

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