Winthrop faculty discuss dealing with tragedy

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comDecember 16, 2012 

Twice now, Winthrop’s Jennie Rakestraw has had to comfort families, faculty and students mourning the loss of young lives.

"There's not much you can say," said Rakestraw, dean of Winthrop University's College of Education for the past five years. "I don't know if there's an expectation to say much. I think really it's a matter of reaching out...letting the parents know we care; that their child is going to be missed."

That's what Rakestraw did at the Hurst home Saturday after Winthrop's commencement ceremony, where 21-year-old Anna Marie Hurst was scheduled to graduate with a degree in family and consumer sciences. She never crossed the stage. A day before graduation, she died in her sleep at her family’s home.

The same day word of Hughes' death rippled through the university, Adam Lanza, 20, forced his way into a Connecticut elementary school and fatally shot 20 children and six adults before killing himself.

Rakestraw is confident school districts in Connecticut will take a hard look at security measures, questioning what more they can do to ensure student and teacher safety. She hopes schools nationwide will also consider the importance of in-school counselors, who she said don’t receive the credit they deserve.

On Friday, Mary Sherlach, a 56-year-old school psychologist at Sandy Hook Elementary School, reportedly rushed out into the hallway after hearing gunshots. There, she died, along with Dawn Hochsprungs, the school's principal, who authorities said rushed at Lanza to stop him.

"You're helpless in a situation like this," Rakestraw said. "It makes me wonder how we can help" students before issues they deal with escalate into violence.

“The best response is to have people in the school district who can provide support."

Rakestraw is no stranger to offering support, having spoken with parents of both Hurst and Morgan Hughes, a 21-year-old Winthrop senior from Conway who died Oct. 28 in a car crash on Interstate 20.

There's no sure-fire formula for dealing with the loss. After Hughes' death, students held a candlelight vigil. Her classmates gathered with administrators to discuss missing their field-learning assignments to attend the funeral, said Rakestraw, who also attended the service alongside four faculty members.

When Cynthia Furr, a Winthrop English professor, and her daughter, 2-year-old McAllister, were killed in a Charlotte accident three years ago, her colleague Jo Koster immediately volunteered to teach one of her classes so “there could be someone there Monday morning” to help students.

As undergraduates filtered into the classroom, Koster said she realized that some of them hadn’t heard about the accident. For the rest of the class period, students and Koster discussed Furr, the kind of person she was and how to deal with her loss. For the rest of the semester, a memorial book stayed at Furr’s office door, and students and faculty left flowers and teddy bears.

“I had students sitting in my office sobbing,” Koster said. “And, I was crying along with them. We tried to provide a place where it was OK to grieve.”

After the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, where 32 people were killed, faculty members, like Koster, underwent training to prepare for possible emergencies.

“Teaching is our life,” Koster said. “Everybody’s had to think about the fact that that may not be a metaphorical statement” anymore. Faculty members, she said, now pray that they have the “courage of those teachers in Connecticut.”

It’s the courage of parents that’s resonated most with Frank Ardaiolo, the university’s vice president of student life.

"As I look at the tragedies that occurred in Connecticut, and when any of these things happen, I don't know how parents can cope," he said. “We’re (parents) not made to lose our children, I've come to understand. We don't have the mechanisms to really cope with that automatically."

In 1993, nine Winthrop tennis players were involved in a van crash in Hattiesburg, Miss. Four of them were critically injured; some weren't expected to live. One player, Bruno Torok from Brazil, died on the scene.

That’s when Ardaiolo said he quickly learned “under fire” how to manage amid tragedies that affect the campus.

With help from Karen Jones, then the university's registrar, and Maria Cristina Grabiel, the dean of students at the time who died this October, Ardaiolo contacted family members--all of them overseas.

"I had to make nine phone calls around the world," Ardaiolo said.

When he arrived in Hattiesburg, he expected to stay long enough to oversee everything and make sure all the parents met up with their children. Instead, he stayed three weeks.

"It was just so chaotic," he said. "The grief surrounding me was amazing. You get very emotionally involved with what's going on around you."

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Ardaiolo said he learned a couple of things, including: "You have to have concern for detail, you have to have common sense and, of course, you have to have compassion" with the ability to act.

In the days after the crash, the university held a "mass...poignant ceremony" at the Winthrop Coliseum, Ardaiolo said, as well as a special service for Torok, who was Catholic, at the Rock Hill Oratory.

It’s common for Winthrop to rally in times of tragedy, Ardaiolo said, remembering the campus’ response when Winthrop alumnus Jordan Smith died in May 2009. Four months later, Eagles athletes wore black armbands to honor the memory of Darnell Watson, who died in an accident on Interstate 77. On Saturday, Joshua Hurst accepted his sister’s degree to the backdrop of a standing ovation.

“He was remarkably strong,” Ardaiolo said about meeting Joshua Hurst. “It's just emblematic of Winthrop the way everyone spontaneously stood and clapped. It was extraordinarily poignant.”

Ardaiolo, who drafts the emails that notify the campus of a student, alumni or faculty member’s passing, said after sending out news of Hurst’s death, a colleague contacted him, asking how he managed not to cry while typing the message.

Ardaiolo wrote back: “Who said I wasn't crying?”

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