Nearly 200 SUNY Fredonia students, faculty, staff and administration joined family members of the late 21-year-old college senior Thomas Dean Wednesday in the Williams Center to remember and pay tribute to his passion for literature and writing.
The event, sponsored by the campus' English Department, brought together these people, who listened to poems, flash fiction, one-sentence stories, and even a viola solo, memorializing Thom, who was an English major from Newfane, N.Y.
"We have felt the shock and, since then, felt the loss of Thom Dean," Ann Siegle Drege, English Department chair, said, adding the event was a celebration of Thom's life.
OBSERVER Photo by Greg Fox
Katie Dean speaks about her brother, Thom, the SUNY Fredonia senior who recently passed away unexpectedly, during a gathering honoring his life Wednesday at the Williams Center. To the right is a picture of Thom with his godmother, Jean, during a family dinner “just hours before he left us,” according to Katie.
"As a campus community, there are days of celebration, days of reflection, and days, like today, that are such a combination of emotions," SUNY Fredonia President Virginia Horvath said. "All of us who work in higher education hope not to have days like today. We look forward to the strong and long futures of our students and we work together, at a time like this, to come together as a community to honor and remember one of our own."
Thom's sister, Katie, shared several happy memories of a goofy Thom to incite laughter in a tear-stricken room.
"I've been called 'Thom with hair,' so it's kind of an honor to be complimented in that way," she said. "We used to be obsessed with the Crocodile Hunter and we'd go around in our front yard and put our stuffed animals everywhere and pretend we were going on a safari and Thom would copy Steve Irwin, saying, 'Crikey! There's a kangaroo over there!' It was so fun."
Katie said even though her relationship with her brother had its flaws, she would not trade it for anything in the world. She added she would like to pursue motivational speaking in schools, which Thom inspired her to do.
Katie also shared a message from Thom's mother, Susan, who was present for the event, but did not speak.
"'Thom was so unique and so comfortable with who he was, which is something most of us can only marvel at,'" Katie read. "'... Although my heart is broken, my spirit isn't, which is something I learned from my amazing son. He found a way to rise above his adversities and become the amazing young man that he was, as evident by everyone honoring him today and all the friends he never forgot over the years.
"'He went out on top of the world doing something he loved, which is all any of us can hope for. His life was far too short and the world would definitely be better if he could still be with us, but I personally thank him for giving me the greatest 21 years of my life and for setting such a wonderful example for those he left behind.'"
English Professor Sarah Gerkensmeyer spoke about Thom's love for the student group Writer's Ring.
"Thom played a crucial role in developing a sense of community within this group," she said. "At the last meeting he attended, Thom encouraged a new member to read from her work for the first time. She was nervous, but Thom guided her through."
A member of Writer's Ring, Shelby Converse, shared a one-sentence story entitled "Man's Closing Breath," written by Thom.
"'If I should wake before I die, turn the kettle on, love, and I'll tell you everything,'" she recited.
"It was truly heartwarming to see the large show of support for Thom's family and friends, as we all gathered to celebrate his life," SUNY Fredonia Public Relations Director Michael Barone wrote in an email. "Despite our relatively large size, one of SUNY Fredonia's hallmarks is the close-knit, at-home feeling most people experience as a part of our campus community. That 'Fredonia Family' vibe really comes through during times of tragedy, like we've experienced over the past two weeks.
"It was especially helpful to have Thom's mother and sister with us on campus today. As difficult as this has been for them, I believe an event like this goes a long way toward helping them, as well as our students, to cope with the very difficult emotions surrounding this situation," Barone concluded. "They both said at the end that Fredonia will always be a part of their lives as a result of this. They can rest assured that they will always be a part of ours, as well."
Thom died unexpectedly Nov. 2 while playing video games with a friend in his dorm room on campus.
As of Wednesday, the university has not been given any information as to the cause of Thom's passing. An autopsy was requested by family members, but the college reports there is no suspicion of foul play.
"That's not our place to comment because that information would only be released to the family," Barone said over the phone. "Either the coroner's office or the family would release anything, if they so choose."
The college recently announced a memorial fund has been set up in Thom's honor through the Fredonia College Foundation. The fund will help support future generations of students within the English Department.
To contribute, contact the foundation at (716) 673-3321, or go online to go.fredonia.edu/ThomasDeanMemorial.
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