CULLOWHEE – The Western Carolina University campus paused Monday, May 2, to plant a Cherokee chief dogwood tree on a hillside overlooking Brown Cafeteria in honor of the memories of four students who died during the past year.
The memorial tree planting ceremony is an effort to reassure the families and friends of the deceased students that members of the university share their grief and sorrow, said Bob Caruso, vice chancellor for student affairs at Western.
“We believe that it is very important for the university to take time to honor these students, for your loss is indeed our community’s loss,” Caruso said. “Through this ceremony today, we try to demonstrate our university’s commitment to caring and concern for members of our student community.”
Two of the Western students honored during the ceremony – Aaron Joel Esteppe, a sophomore from Goldsboro who was majoring in engineering technology, and Misty Dawn France, a sophomore from Jacksonville who was majoring in elementary education – died after falling from a waterfall a few miles south of campus last September.
Two non-traditional students were honored during the ceremony – Annie Ripley Gehring of Sylva, who graduated last spring with a degree in music education, and who died unexpectedly earlier this year, and Eric Rozier, a history graduate student from Kingsport, Tenn., who also died earlier this year after a lengthy illness.
Friends and family members of the four deceased students spoke about the loss of their loved ones before helping plant the dogwood tree. Other members of the campus community also joined in to shovel soil around the base of the tree.
The ceremony was accompanied by gamelan music performed by the WCU Low Tech Ensemble. A gamelan is an orchestra of tuned percussion instruments that consists mainly of gongs, zithers and xylophones. The instruments that make up a gamelan originated in Indonesia and coastal Southeast Asia.
Chaplain Kevin Pires of the Seventh Day Adventist Church and a member of Western’s United Campus Ministry, offered the invocation and benediction, and Holly Wilson of the Student Government Association read the poem “Remember Me.”
The location of the tree planting ceremony on the Western campus is marked by a monument donated to the university by Angela and Reg Moody Jr., Western alumni who operate a Sylva funeral home.