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BLUFFTON CELEBRATES LIGHT AND LIFE AT MEMORIAL SERVICE

Breaking through an overcast sky, the evening sun lit the faces of the Bluffton campus community and supporters who lined the sidewalks outside Founders Hall long before doors opened Monday evening for the 7:30 p.m. memorial service for the Bluffton University student-athletes who lost their lives in a March 2 bus accident in Atlanta, Ga.

Nearly 2,500 individuals turned out to remember the lives of baseball players Zachary Arend (Oakwood, Ohio); David Betts (Bryan, Ohio); Scott Harmon (Lima, Ohio); Cody Holp (Arcanum, Ohio) and Tyler Williams (Lima, Ohio); and bus driver Jerome Niemeyer and his wife, Jean (Columbus Grove, Ohio).

In front of a hushed Founders Hall audience and closed-circuit seating in Burcky Gym, Bluffton University’s baseball team entered the gymnasium with seven lit candles, centering them on the stage in remembrance of those who died, illuminating a theme of "light" which shone throughout the entire service.

Bluffton University President James M. Harder welcomed those gathered and recognized the nationwide prayer and support the institution and families have received, specifically commending the city of Atlanta. He noted the presence of Ohio governor Ted Strickland, as well as representatives from numerous colleges and universities, churches and Mennonite organizations, Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference athletes, AirTran Airways workers and members of the Atlanta Fulton County Fire, Search and Rescue Squad.

"The Bluffton University community has been extended in ways that could not previously have been imagined," said President Harder. "We are deeply grateful for every expression of condolence and every act of caring. Truly, through all this we have felt the hand of God reaching out to bring comfort when we have experienced so much pain and loss."

President Harder observed the strength and nobility of each baseball team member, especially that of Arend, Betts, Harmon, Holp and Williams. "For the five players we remember this evening, the 2007 season ended before they could take the field for their first game," President Harder said. "But along with their teammates, their lives have already inspired us in more ways this season than would have been possible no matter how outstanding their play on the field."

In remembering the student-athletes, Dr. Donald L. Pannabecker, vice president and dean of academic affairs emeritus, emphasized that "through tears, darkness gives way to light." He described how Bluffton’s small town values have been reflected in Atlanta’s overflowing "cup of compassion," creating a bond of similarity between an Ohio village and southern city. He also spoke of the "shafts of light" that pierced the darkness through the help of firefighters, paramedics, doctors, nurses, churches, organizations and corporations.

Student Senate President Hannah Kehr (Goshen, Ind.) provided a brief meditation on Psalm 130, encouraging Bluffton University students to "wait and watch for the sunrise and the hope that is sure to come."

Dr. George Metz, associate professor of education and Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference faculty representative, described Bluffton as a community gathered in hope, trust, faith, sorrow and sadness—a community that "has the assurance of tomorrow’s hope."

Campus pastor Stephen "Tig" Intagliata provided a meditation on Jesus’ ministry to the brokenhearted. "Right now we are in-between the first pitch and the homerun in the bottom of the ninth," said Intagliata. "Death didn’t have the final say with Jesus and doesn’t have to have the final say with us."

Both Dr. Larry George, Pathways associate professor of African American biblical faith and history, and Dr. Eric Fulcomer, vice president for enrollment management and student life, offered prayers. Scriptures were read by David Baumgartner, board of trustees member and father of baseball player Lukas Baumgartner (Berne, Ind.); Ryan Baightel (Wapakoneta, Ohio), baseball team captain; and Dr. Angela Montel, professor of biology. In addition, the Bluffton University Camerata Singers performed under the direction of Dr. Mark J. Suderman.

Following the service, Taylor University catered a reception in Marbeck Center. The Bluffton campus community and supporters gathered to uplift one another through warm embraces and consoling smiles just as Bluffton faculty, staff and students had done in meetings earlier in the day. Students spent time in reflection and prayer with one another before classes resumed at 1 p.m.

Junior Colin Yoder (Goshen, Ind.) is a close friend to Tim Berta, a student-assistant coach who remains hospitalized in Atlanta. Referring to his first day back on campus since the accident, Yoder said, "Today has been the toughest day since the accident. I’ve tried to get back into my daily routine, only it’s impossible not to notice that something is missing. Today I have come to realize that my daily routine is no more, because a best friend of mine is not here. It’s like opening a book to find chapters have been ripped out of it. I realize now how important daily interactions with friends really are."

"To me, coming back to campus felt like coming to a second home," said junior Micah Boehr (Bluffton, OH), close friend to David Betts. "The relationships that I have surrounded myself with here were made available again for me to draw support from, and I feel I can give support to those who need it."

Regarding university support for students, Yoder said, "Bluffton has been great through the whole experience. Faculty and staff are lending support in numerous ways, and the strong sense of community has certainly risen to the surface." Professional counselors are available for students, and several areas in Marbeck Center have been reserved for reflection and remembrance.

"While I hate that this tragedy had to happen, it has been apparent that Bluffton is the type of University that can help each other get through the toughest of times," said Yoder.

"I take comfort in the ways that Bluffton as a community is working hard to care for each other-friends taking care of friends and faculty and staff checking in-and I’ve been blessed to see the ways that other schools and individuals have responded to us as well," said Kehr. "The healing process is already underway."

Kehr’s sentiments are reflected in President Harder’s concluding words at the memorial service: "Darkness descends whenever lives are lost under tragic circumstances. But it also reflects our faith in God that lament can once again give way to hope, joy and love-that we can understand even death as a light in the darkness."

Heidi Martin, public relations office, 3/13/07