22 Webster students travel to Fort Wayne, Indiana for Flueckiger’s memorial
To read more about Thomas, click here.
(FORT WAYNE, Ind., March 31, 2011) The morning sky is a grim gray as 22 students pile into a caravan bus. They look as if they have just woken up. Many haven’t slept and those who have, haven’t slept well.
The 21 close-knit Conservatory students and lone photography student are waiting for the bus to embark on the seven-hour journey to Fort Wayne, Indiana. They are traveling to the funeral of their friend Thomas Carter Flueckiger, a freshman lighting design major. Thomas died March 28 from lung cancer.
Alan Grell, Thomas’ classmate who organized the trip, handed each student a medical release form after they walked up the stairs of the bus.
“What are you putting under activity?” said Katie Stepanek, a junior lighting design major, refering to a line on the form.
“Activities are supposed to be fun,” said Emma Crafton, freshman. “This is not a fun activity.”
Driving in a separate car are Kyra Bishop, Myra Giorgi, Jacob Burkamper, Jonathon Schneider and Tom Haverkamp — Thomas’ closest Webster University friends.
The ride continues until lunchtime. Grell eats his three-piece chicken strip meal dipped in barbecue and reflects on the time before Thomas left Webster for treatment.
He said Thomas’ parents’ blog on CaringBridge.com gave him and other students optimism despite Thomas’s physical setbacks.
Grell said Thomas’ death came out of nowhere.
“We never got to say goodbye,” Grell said. “I guess it’s true that only the good die young.”
Grell takes another bite.
He leaves the table. He and the other students change into their dress clothes, preparing for the funeral — the only chance they’ll have to say goodbye.
The bus pulls into the D.O. McComb & Sons funeral home parking lot. Upon walking through the white double doors, an usher greets the students and asks, “For Thomas?” Then, he directs them to a long line in a reception room decorated with floral paintings and ornate furniture.
People file outside the room and a line winds outside to accommodate all the visitors. In groups of four, the students cross the hall and enter the reception room to meet Thomas’s parents.
Thomas’ parents Bryan Flueckiger and Mary Ann Flueckiger with Thomas’s sister, Jen, greet each student gratefully.
Loren Borja, a scene design major, hugs Thomas’ dad, sister and mom then finds a seat in a reserved section for Webster students.
“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Borja said.
Before the service begins, students approach the coffin, console each other and visit a round table highlighting Thomas’ memorabilia: a childhood stuffed animal, his violin and a teddy bear wearing a Conservatory T-shirt with his friends’ signatures.
Bishop circles the table. She stops and suddenly weeps.
“That’s what I gave him last Christmas,” she said, pointing at a framed “RENT” collage, a tribute to Thomas’ favorite musical.
Bishop originally wanted to give Thomas the gift for his 19th birthday on April 24, but she finished the project early and made it Thomas’ Christmas gift.
“I didn’t expect the gift to be there,” Bishop said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, what if (I didn’t give it to him for Christmas)?’ That was really tough because a lot of things just hit me at one time.”
For students like Lionel Christian, the news of Thomas’ death hit them differently because they only heard good reports.
“The last I heard, he was fine,” Christian said. “The last thing I think people heard was that he was doing fine.”
“It’s cancer,” Bishop said to him. “You can’t ever be doing fine with cancer.”
Thomas and Bishop met on the first day of Conservatory classes. They lived on the same floor and shared a Conservatory locker.
“He made me the happiest I’ve ever been as his friend,” Bishop said. “He’s probably the best friend I’ve ever had.”
On the day she learned Thomas died, Bishop was leaving props crew. She had a voicemail from Dottie Marshall Englis, Conservatory Chair. Bishop was getting ready to call Englis back when she saw Giorgi.
“You know something’s wrong but you don’t want it to be,” Bishop said.
Giorgi said Thomas passed away. They went in the elevator and cried together.
In the car, the five listened to musical theater songs. “Wicked” and “Avenue Q” resonated through the car, but the lyrics of “RENT” took on a new meaning.
“In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee…how do you measure a year in the life?” sing Thomas’ hometown theater friends at the beginning of the funeral service.
Rev. Terry Anderson, Thomas’ middle school theatre teacher, takes the podium and begins to tell a story:
Thomas is in the sixth grade. Anderson has broken her ankle. After missing two weeks of school, she said she returned cranky and in pain. One hundred middle school students are standing in the school’s auditorium waiting for the rehearsal.
“And back in the back was the tech booth with one little sixth grader standing there,” she said. “Things were looking really bleak for me.”
Anderson was sure this was going to be the worst production of “Oklahoma.” Thomas approached Anderson to point out all the lighting flaws one day after rehearsal.
“Thomas!” she snaps. “Please stop spending all this time pointing out all the problems. If you see a problem, fix it!”
Feeling bad for snapping, Anderson meets Thomas the next day. He greets her with a smile — and a solution to the problem.
“That moment, that single moment in time marked our collaborative relationship,” Anderson said. “He was 12, and I was 40. What I didn’t understand at the time was that he would accept any challenge until the end with grace and rigor.”
To conclude the service, “Firework,” by Katy Perry crescendos throughout the room.
“The other day we were driving to go do some painting and it comes on the radio,” Bishop said. “We just stop and Myra turns the radio up. We just sat there. No one said anything. We just sat there and knew.”
By 1:30 a.m., the bus parks in front of Emerson Library. The lights shine on the bus. Students gather their belongings and file off the bus. Some students go back to work while others return to their rooms. Now, Bishop, Giorgi and Christian agree, classes are subdued.
Bishop, though, is still coming to terms with his absence.
“In the beginning for me it was like, ‘Oh he’ll be back next year,’ ” Bishop said. “I thought he would be gone for a month but always he’ll be back next year, we’ll pick up where we left off.”
Mary Ann Flueckiger told Bishop he was the happiest while at Webster. Many remember him simply as a happy 18-year-old who, Bishop said, wanted to be his own person above all else.
Bishop remembers him as that and more.
“He was everything.”
Andrea Sisney contributed to this article.