Death: Can't you see you're not welcome?
Tim Whyte · May 4, 1997
I was at the paper cutter, trimming copies of Richard Rioux's columns. There was also a stack of Randy Wicks' cartoons, awaiting trimming. City Editor David Foy and I were discussing the story about Heath Taylor, the Hart High student who died after an accident in pole vaulting practice.
Wicks died in August, and College of the Canyons is planning a display of his editorial cartoons. I was on deadline for those, and Richard's columns were to be used for a display at the reception after the memorial service Friday. Richard died on Monday.
We'd expended a lot of energy covering the Heath Taylor story. I didn't know him, but it breaks your heart when you hear of a kid dying. It's unsettling, but Dave and I still had to plan our coverage.
Three subjects. Rioux, Wicks, Taylor.
All about death.
It occurred to me on the way home from Richard's funeral that he, Wicks and our other recently departed columnist, Dan Hon, all had distinct voices.
It was a t the newspaper's Christmas party when Richard and I had a brief discussion remembering Randy and shared concerns about Dan, whose health was failing. Richard was worried Dan wouldn't make it. He had concern and compassion in his voice, qualities that were omnipresent in his every conversation.
Richard was a rock. His occupation was to help others recover from drug and alcohol addiction, and he was involved in a broad assortment of endeavors. Being a rock. It's hard work. The last time I talked to him on the phone, I could tell he was tired.
Wicks' voice was part Iowa farm boy, part cartoon character. He would say something that struck him funny, and his whole body would convulse, arms flailing, as he laughed, conspiratorially.
Hon's voice -- "Now here's what you need to do, OK? You got and you visit that judge, alright?" -- was rhythmic, cheerful but firm. He was an attorney.
And Richard's voice was polished, complementing his vocabulary. It was the voice of a public speaker, a synergistic blend of compassion and conviction.
Richard. Dan. Randy.
I miss them all.
You send your kid to school, or day care, every day, and just sort of expect that at the end of the day, you'll all see each other again.
But a parent's worst nightmare happened Tuesday. Heath Taylor, 17, was a pole vaulter for Hart's track team, and there was an accident during practice. He landed at the edge of the big padded landing pit, hitting his head on the ground. He died later that night.
The next day, we and seemingly every Southland media outlet converged on the campus. Administrators kept things close to the vest. Reporters weren't allowed on campus to interview students, even when class wasn't in session, and later we would have a productive discussion with an administrator over our differing interpretations of state law governing media access to public schools.
That evening, our reporters tried to reach Taylor's friends on the track team, in hopes of gaining insight into the youth whose life was tragically cut short.
They either could not be reached or would not talk. One said he couldn't talk to us without first clearing it with his coach. A "gag order" had been issued. Hart's track team was instructed no to talk to the media about the incident. It's one thing to instruct faculty members, and other employees, to direct media inquiries to the administration. But students?
If a high school student wishes to be left alone and doesn't want to talk to the media, he or she can say so. If they don't want to talk, that's perfectly understandable. I wouldn't blame them one bit for telling us to go to hell, as some students did at a candlelight vigil on Wednesday night. They've been through a grievous trauma, and you've got to allow for the fact that they may want to deal with it privately. You just hope they understand that there's no malice on the part of those who are trying to report the news.
But what kind of message is the administration sending when it tells kids who they can or cannot talk to? Doesn't the First Amendment apply to them?
And what's the motivation? Protecting the kids? From what? From sharing their heartfelt sentiments about their friend and his death? Isn't it up to them to determine whether that process would be dangerous, productive or even cathartic? Or is the real motivation to protect the school, to keep the details of Taylor's death as close to the administration's vest as possible? Since when is it the students' job to protect the interests of the school and/or district?
No one should rush to judgment about the circumstances surrounding Heath Taylor's death. And make no mistake: the administrators and coaches are deeply hurt by this loss. I know they care a ton about the kids. I know they care a ton about Heath Taylor.
But Hart High, a public school, has been a fortress this week. And there are questions to be answered.
I confess. This distracted me. I became aggravated, and my focus was, unfortunately, diverted - for a moment here, a moment there - from the most important, most tragic fact of this story:
Someone's son has died. A promising young life has come to a sudden, unexpected end. Your heart has to go out to the family of Heath Taylor.
Death. I've had it up to here with death.
I caught an all-too-brief break in the action in the middle of the day on Friday, between work and Richard's funeral. I tackled Luc on the living room floor, and he laughed and laughed. He's 19 months old now, old enough that he's got to be in the right mood to be hugged and cuddled. There are times already when he's too cool for that. And if he doesn't get his way, he may cry, proving that he doesn't know how care-free he really is.
I tried to hug him, but he pushed me away. He'd rather play hockey. He went and grabbed his two plastic hockey sticks, and gave me one. We use a real puck on the living room floor, you know. Mommy's home with the chicken pox. She just shakes her head.
We played for a while, then it was almost time for me to go. Luc grabbed his Nerf football and ran into his little Playskool tent that was pitched on the living room floor. I chased him in there, and I tackled him again, and he cackled and laughed.
And I wanted to stop the clocks, freeze that moment, and never let go.
Tim Whyte is the magaging editor of The Signal. His commentary appears on Sundays.
© 1997, THE SIGNAL -- ALL RIGHTS RESERVED