I met Tim and Janice Kerlee this spring. They were the guest speakers at our annual Aggie Muster. Their presentation is remarkable…they explain the Bonfire Memorial in great detail with pictures and describe the meaning of the each of the symbols throughout the entire structure, which are quite numerous.
Losing Bonfire happened just a few weeks before I graduated, and hardly a week goes by without me thinking about that day in some way. It helps that my office is adorned predominantly in Aggie stuff, including a picture of the last Aggie Bonfire in 1998. In my sitting area I have a copy of the Texas Monthly issue about Aggie Bonfire. Nonetheless, it’s still something I keep fresh in my memory because from time to time something will trigger a memory of that day. I don’t remember eating or where I parked or any of the normal details of my day-to-day life. Just the invisible mourning shared between my fellow Ags and the confusion that weighed heavily in all of our hearts. We all waited patiently and rather quietly outside the perimeter fence watching rescue workers try to save my fellow Ags. RC Slocum’s football team assembled and were among the folks who were toting logs off the stack.
It was the first and last time I’d been a part of a national news item, much less one that was so near and dear to my heart. I don’t know that I even realized if was even a single camera at the Polo Fields when we were out there. Obviously, there were. There were helicopters in the sky and news vans everywhere, but I didn’t even think to notice them. I didn’t have a mobile phone back then so I was out of touch for most of the day. My mother was miserable, I’m sure, but she worries a lot.
Part of the Kerlees’ presentation was the picture that the Dallas Morning News ran on their front page of Tim’s decimated body. His hips were crushed, his legs were detached from his body and his arm was broken. He was in shock and wasn’t in pain, although very uncomfortable from having his body broken the way it was. People in the rescue crews said that he told them to go help the others before they helped him. His parents got to see him before he died in the hospital.
Tim Kerlee, Jr was Janice and Tim Sr’s only child, and they lost him twelve years ago today. It makes me think about my son quite a bit when I remember her talking about Tim Jr, and I wonder how I would respond if my only child died doing something he was so passionate about. I wonder how many Aggies still think about that picture of Tim Jr in the newspaper and get angry that the DMN ran it in the first place. I wonder if the next generation of Aggies or the leadership in place on campus can ever get close to comprehending the dedication and spirit that Aggies such as the twelve who died that early morning had, as well as the others who were there and injured or had to help dig their brothers and sisters out of fallen stack. We hear about Tim so much because he was the last one to fall, but there are 11 other Aggies that rarely get mentioned.
I can’t do anything other than wonder, but I still do and I do it regularly. I hope you do as well.
Here X 12. Fightin’ Texas Aggie Bonfire.