An Incredible Demonstration of Love

By Jim Garringer Published: Aug 19, 2016

“I am loving life right now … I go to bed each night wondering if it would be possible for my life to be more enjoyable.”

From Brad Larson’s journal, dated February 2006.

Brad Larson ’06 planned to go to law school after he graduated from Taylor. Betsy Smith ’06 looked forward to living in Marion after her impending graduation, where she could be close to the children she had met at ReaLife. Laurel Erb ’06 was a sophomore art student who saw God’s creative beauty in something as simple as an ice cube. While many say they can love others unconditionally, Taylor senior Laura Van Ryn ’06 really did. And dining services staff member Monica Felver loved Taylor’s athletes – so much so, when they came through her lunch line, they got a candy bar if they were playing well. And if they weren’t playing so well? Their “reward” was a sucker.

The accident.

Even after 10 years, those two words can transport one back to that Wednesday night, April 26, 2006, when a northbound semitrailer rig crossed the median of I-69 and struck a southbound Taylor University van carrying nine people. Brad, Betsy, Laurel, Laura and Monica died in the crash. Dining services staff members Vickie Rhodes, Connie Magers and Michelle Miller, and a freshman student Whitney (Cerak ’09) Wheeler suffered serious injuries. The group was returning from Taylor’s former Fort Wayne campus where they had helped prepare for what was to have been one of Taylor’s most exciting and happy events – the impending inauguration of Dr. Eugene B. Habecker ’68 as Taylor’s president.

The misidentification.

Whitney Wheeler suffered broken bones and a traumatic brain injury in the crash. When emergency workers arrived at the scene, she was transported – with Laura Van Ryn’s identification, which had been found on the ground nearby – to the hospital. The quick action probably saved her life, but in the coming hours, the belief grew that Laura, who like Whitney was blonde with similar features, had survived and Whitney had died.

Bandaged and lapsing in and out of consciousness, Whitney was cared for by the Van Ryn family for more than a month until it became increasingly evident there had been a mix-up. She returned to campus that August – four months to the day after the accident – and continued occupational and physical therapy for a year-and-a-half. Whitney graduated with her 2009 class and was married a year later. Today, she and her husband Matt are the parents of three small children. Zachary, the couple’s oldest child, will turn four in April. Whitney says Zachary’s name was chosen because of its meaning: the Lord remembers you.

A few days after the accident, some students and faculty erected a display of five crosses to mark the site. Ten years later, the crosses are still there, just south of the 266 mile marker, along the fence row where the Taylor van came to rest. Sadly, perhaps inevitably, the tragedy of April 26, 2006, was not the last one to impact the Taylor community. In the past 10 years, nine additional faculty and/or staff members and three students have died. April 26, a day originally set aside to remember those lost in the 2006 accident, has since become a day to recognize and honor the lives of everyone whose earthly journeys came to an end while at Taylor as a student or employee.

“When you lose a child, your life is never the same,” Brad Larson’s mother Sherry shared. “Recently, we had lunch with our son Jeff ’02 and two of his children, and our daughter Dawn (Larson ’04). I could not help but wonder what would it be like if Brad were with us? He would have brought his sweet wife and kids. That is what our life is like now. It’s joy mixed with sadness. As often as we get together, as sweet as it is, our Bradley is not with us.”

In the aftermath of the crash as families made the sad journey to campus to pick up their loved ones’ belongings, Sherry and David Larson discovered their son’s prayer journals and diaries – writings in which he described a growth in his faith greater than anything they could have imagined. Today, many of those writings are contained in the book they published titled Brad’s Legacy: A Son’s Heart Discovered. “We obviously know where Brad is, and that we will see him in the blink of an eye and that we will be with him forever,” David said. “There is no question that the whole experience has deepened our faith to see how the Lord has worked through us and in us to bring us closer to him in ways that were unimaginable before we went through our loss. We’ve seen the Lord do some amazing things.”

For months after the crash, Monica Felver’s husband Glenn left her jeans and nightgown untouched. Even though he knew she was gone, moving them from where she’d left them on that last day of her life was too painful. “It’s not the first time in my life I lost to another man, but this time I lost to the Best Man. God took her home,” Glenn reflected. “When you say 10 years, it doesn’t seem like it was 10 years. It still rips your insides out.”

Jeanie Smith admits there have been days when grief has rendered the simplest of things, like purchasing lipstick at the local Walgreen’s, nearly impossible. Once, a flood of sorrow was triggered when she noticed some stationery adorned with cats. Betsy loved cats. “It’s unfathomable when you are confronted by grief like that. It takes the mind a long time to find a place to put that,” she related. “It’s a club you never want to belong to. All you have to say is, ‘I’ve lost a child,’ and there are immediately hugs.

“I don’t think Dan and I would have made it – individually or as a couple – unless we had the Lord,” she continued. “The (divorce) statistics are so high for couples who have lost a child. We talked about that less than a day after Betsy’s death. We praise the Lord every day that our relationship is stronger than ever.”

“Even though it has been tragic and life-changing, there has been a lot of good that has come out of Betsy’s death,” Jeanie’s husband Dan said. “That understanding comes from the Scriptures. We have heard of lives that have been changed and many people who have come to know Christ – people whose lives have been completely turned around after they heard about the accident, heard about Betsy, and our family. I just praise God for the healing process … without our faith as a family, I don’t know how we would have gotten through this.”

“There is no possibility of summarizing who she was, or what she meant to us, or how much we miss her,” Laurel Erb’s parents, Greg and Margaret (Stob ’79) Erb ’78, said in an email message. “Sometimes life is about consciously putting one foot in front of the other – saying to oneself, ‘Just take another step.’

“We have always found God to be there in those times,” they continued. “God has touched us and changed us. As a result, each member of our immediate family has been altered according to his design and direction. Above all, he continually offers us the promise of hope – the hope that is made clear in his word, in his teachings, in his promises, and in the beauty of his handiwork all about us. We know that he has not abandoned us, that he has plans for us, plans to prosper us and not cause us harm, plans that offer not only hope but also a future.”

Laura Van Ryn’s parents Don and Susan ’74 shared how God has given them new opportunities for ministry at Upper Peninsula Bible Camp (UPBC) in Skandia, Mich., in the past 10 years. “Laura opened her heart to the Lord at UPBC,” the couple said, also in an email message. “God has given us the unique opportunity for us to come alongside others who have lost children. Because of the circumstances of the mistaken identity, we have had multiple occasions to share God’s story with individuals, as well as in small and large group settings.”

“Scripture tells us that every word of God is true,” they added. “His character does not allow for anything but total faithfulness to that Word and in turn, to us as believers in Jesus Christ. We have found that modeling our faith (which comes from Him) has made a huge impact on others, especially young believers. We encourage all believers to stay strong in their faith because it will make a difference in your family and your other many contacts.”

As Whitney Wheeler has begun to speak publicly about her experience her emphasis has been God’s faithfulness. “I have been reading stories in the Bible and it’s interesting that God picks the lowliest and the weakest,” Whitney said. “Moses and David didn’t think what God called them to do was possible, but God was the one who said, ‘No, I want you.’ I felt like I was the least equipped … God has shown so much strength in the last 10 years of my life – things that I never thought were possible.”

“This wasn’t about us. It was about all of these families and we never forget we were the lucky ones in this situation,” related Whitney’s mother Colleen (Frank ’80). “But these families live with the loss of someone special. Because of the mistaken identity, our names came to the forefront, but it was always about the other families.”

“If I could just give one word picture, it was the love of Christ at work throughout our immediate family, our community, the local church and the Taylor family,” Dan Smith said. “It has been an incredible demonstration of God’s love for his children.”

Note: This story appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the Taylor University alumni magazine.