Seven Auburn students died in the past year, but the University has not forgotten their individual impacts on campus.
Members of Student Affairs and several student organizations gathered on Sunday, Sept. 20 to pay a tearful tribute to those lost. A ceremony was held in the Garden of Memory at 5 p.m. via an Eagle Eye TV livestream out of safety.
Warren Claborn, Chih-Kai “Kevin” Lai, Kat Lersch, Daniel Newhard, Stacy Russell, James Stallworth and Cole Watson were those named.
“You often hear us talk about the Auburn Family,” said Bobby Woodard. “Everyone is a part of the Auburn Family whether you are a student, faculty or staff. Many including myself might argue that our children are our most precious members of any family, [and] our students are our children here at Auburn University ... and the reason we all are here.”
Woodard mentioned that when students die, the University grieves by flying an Auburn flag at Samford Hall for two weeks, where it is then transferred to the Student Center along with a certificate bearing the deceased student’s name.
“We shed tears and we mourn the loss of their physical presence in our daily lives, but their spirit is still alive and remains at Auburn University,” he said. “We feel it in the classroom, we feel it on the competition field, on campus and particularly in [the Garden of Memory]. Their spirit is all around us.”
The University built the Garden of Memory in 2016 as a space with the intention of honoring deceased students, according to Woodard. A memorial ceremony has taken place there annually ever since, but this year was the first to see it virtual only.
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“The walking path through the garden is lined with verses of the Auburn Creed,” Woodard said. “This garden is a place for us to reflect on and honor members of our family who are no longer with us. It is impossible for me to read these verses and walk through this garden and not feel the presence of these students that we have lost.”
Jailin Sanders, junior in industrial engineering and Black Student Union president, then read the Creed following a moment of silence from Woodard. Ada Ruth Huntley, senior in global studies and president of Auburn’s Student Government Assocation, then took the lecturn to remember each student on behalf of SGA.
For Huntley, the memorial was a solemn one because one of the students honored was a close friend. Her loss, she said, helped her develop the words necessary to eulogize all the deceased with sincerity in a brief speech.
“In July of this year I lost a dear friend who we are honoring here today — Stacy B. Russell, Jr.,” Huntley said. “Stacy’s passing shocked me this summer, and I did not know the right thing to say, do or feel. The Stacy I know would want me to celebrate the life he led, not mourn the loss of it.”
Huntley then gave a short obituary for each student.
Kat Lersch, freshman in event management from Mobile, Alabama, was a service sorority and church member. As an organ donor, she saved eight lives after her death, according to Huntley.
“Her parents are and should be incredibly proud of her heart for others,” Huntley said.
Dr. Daniel Newhard was a cardiology residency student in the College of Veterinary Medicine from Easton, Pennsylvania. Huntley shared that he planned to join the college as a faculty member after graduation.
“He demonstrates dedication to his Auburn education and a willingness to help enhance the lives of those around him,” Huntley said.
Kevin Lai, a graduate student in computer science and software engineering, was an international student from Taiwan.
Cole Watson was a senior in information systems management from Birmingham, Alabama. Huntley said he “understood the meaning of work, hard work and demonstrated this through his studies,” echoing one line from the Creed.
James Stallworth, junior in pre-building science from Mobile, Alabama, was fraternity president of Sigma Alpha Epsilon.
“He is known by his loved ones as a loving person and giver in every sense,” Huntley said. “He demonstrated his servant leadership on campus and served as a role model to many, especially his fraternity brothers.”
Warren Claborn, junior in accounting from Guntersville, Alabama, was also a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, according to Huntley.
“His loved ones say that he never met a stranger, and could brighten any room with a smile or his presence,” she said. “Warren exemplified what it meant to be a good friend, son and brother.”
Stacy Russell, senior in laboratory science from Selma, Alabama, was a housing ambassador and Camp War Eagle 2019 counselor, among other leadership roles.
“[Russell] wanted to attend Auburn his whole life [and] spent his time here giving back to the campus and its people,” Huntley said. “He truly was sunshine — a friend to all who knew him and a role model to those who did not.”
The students were then commemorated in a flower ceremony as Woodard called out their names, passing a white flower for each student from a student bouquet to Huntley, who placed them in a vase with orange and blue flowers. The vase will be displayed in the Student Center along with a sign bearing the names of the deceased, according to Woodard.
The flower ceremony was followed by a reading of a poetry reading from Cat Bryant, senior in finance and biomedical sciences, who read the poem, “What is Auburn,” by David Housel, the University’s 13th athletic director. Ashton Leddon, a graduate student in curriculum and teaching, then concluded the ceremony by singing the Auburn alma mater.
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