Oklahoma highway memorial named after 2 teachers
STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) — Two mothers unveiled the green highway sign on a June morning.
Moments earlier, members of a solemn crowd stood in the grass next to a parking lot and bowed their heads. Mike Chase, the director of Strode Funeral Home, delivered a prayer.
His steady voice carried above the roar of the vehicles passing the Ampride gas station beside Highway 33.
Then Robin Briggs and Anne Fultz untied the fasteners that held a cream tarp over the road marker.
Just more than 43 months earlier, Jennifer Briggs and Heather Wilson, Robin’s and Fultz’s daughters, respectively, traveled the highway.
Every work day, Jennifer and Wilson, English teachers, carpooled from Stillwater to Guthrie Junior High.
That Monday morning, Jennifer drove her vibrant red 2012 Ford Focus.
Robin said she thought people couldn’t miss its eye-catching color.
But on Oct. 27, 2014, someone did.
Rocky Baca was driving under the influence of synthetic marijuana. In his Dodge Van, he passed over the center line and collided head-on with Jennifer’s vehicle.
Jennifer and Wilson died at the scene. Baca later pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter.
Jennifer was 24, and Wilson was 27.
In the place where their futures were taken from them, the new sign stands, a symbol of their short but impactful lives.
June 2, that stretch of gray Oklahoma road was named, as the marker reads, “Jennifer Lea Briggs and Heather Wilson Memorial Highway.”
Robin said 50 to 60 people attended the dedication ceremony. First responders from the day of the accident, family members and Guthrie school faculty united to remember Jennifer and Wilson, the Stillwater News Press reported.
After the dedication, guests watched a slideshow filled with joyous memories of Jennifer and Wilson.
Robin said she wanted the first responders, the ones who rushed to the scene when the women died, to see them alive.
Jennifer almost always carried a book.
Sometimes, she had her sketchbook to channel her artistic ideas. Other times, she was enthralled with the words in a novel.
“She was like Belle from ‘Beauty and the Beast,’” Robin said.
Jennifer showed her imagination from an early age. To young Jennifer, bedroom walls and the front door in her home were canvases. Then she swapped childhood doodles in the Briggs house for detailed portraits on paper.
“Jennifer was very artistic, but she was also your classic nerd,” Robin said, laughing. “Could be many things.”
On her cellphone, Robin keeps pictures of Jennifer’s creations with her. First is a black-and-white photograph of a man with round spectacles. With admiration, Robin scrolled to the next image, one of Jennifer’s school projects. Intricate lines and gray shading recreate the photograph.
Although drawing and watercolor painting were Jennifer’s favorites, she loved all forms of art.
But at Oklahoma State University, Jennifer followed her second passion.
As a senior at Stillwater High School, Jennifer decided she wanted to work as a teacher.
With education budget cuts in Oklahoma, many schools cut electives, so Jennifer knew job openings for art teachers were scarce. Instead, she turned to English.
“She excelled,” Robin said. “She had not only her degree, secondary education in English, but she had a minor in Spanish.”
With adjectives and photographs, Robin tried to piece together a description of her daughter, to create a sketch of Jennifer.
“She was determined,” Robin said. “She was focused.
“She was gentle, but strong and cared deeply for her students.”
Every Saturday, Wilson asked her mother for food.
Wilson, an eighth-grade English teacher, wasn’t looking for snacks for herself.
It started because of a writing assignment.
As Wilson sifted through a large file box brimming with students’ papers, tears pooled in her eyes.
“What’s the matter, Heath?” Fultz asked.
Wilson explained that she had her students write introductions about themselves so she could know them better.
“Well, that’s a good idea,” Fultz replied. “But why are you crying?”
As Wilson read, she realized many of her students lived in homes where their basic needs often weren’t met.
“They sleep on the floor,” Wilson said. “There’s not enough food. They don’t have clothing.”
She decided to keep snacks in a drawer at her desk, feeding her students when they were hungry.
Wilson, like Jennifer, had a heart for others.
But secondary education wasn’t her initial degree path. In 2009, Wilson received a bachelor’s degree in English. She later returned to college, graduating with her sister, Ashley, who majored in elementary education.
Wilson adored science fiction. She played the flute and fluently spoke Japanese. A strong passion for literature led her to compose stories and poems throughout her life.
One of Wilson’s poems, “Where I Am at Peace,” is on the back of her headstone. Fultz chose to put it there.
Two days after Wilson and Jennifer died, their students wrote to their families, telling them how the teachers impacted their lives in the three months they knew them.
Fultz has the compilation of letters, but she doesn’t know how it ends.
When she looks at the letters, she soon stops, sobbing. She still can’t make it past the fourth page.
Emotions overwhelm her, but Fultz doesn’t have to read the students’ words to know the story of her daughter. Fultz knows every chapter of her life, all the layers to her character.
“She was a spirited, lovely young lady,” Fultz said. “She was a bright flame. She was the sun.”
Fultz said Wilson was dedicated to her family. Even when she lived independently, she set aside every Saturday as a day for family time, playing games and talking to Fultz about her class.
She described Wilson as her “mini me.” Ashley’s personality is different, she said, yet she and Heather were best friends.
“I’ve told them their entire lives, one was my left ventricle and the other one was my right,” Fultz said. “Heather was my right, so that part of me died that day.”
Robin waited for two hours and 30 minutes for the worst news of her life.
As time seemed to drag its feet, anxiety tightened its grip on her.
No one at her workplace could tell her what happened. Until a highway patrol officer arrived, she had no answer.
As Robin sat in the Payne County sheriff’s office, her fears didn’t subside. She expected the inevitable.
“I had many people that would sit with me during that two-and-a-half hours, but it was torture,” Robin said. “It was torture waiting to know, just to know that, what I already knew, the confirmation.”
Each day, Robin and her daughter had a routine. They shared Chipper, a black-and-tan teacup Yorkshire Terrier. Each day, they had a routine. Robin went to bed before Jennifer, taking Chipper with her. Before Jennifer went to sleep, she went to Robin’s room and grabbed Chipper. In the morning, Jennifer took the dog outside. At the sound of her daughter’s door opening, Robin got out of bed. She brought Chipper inside so Jennifer could get ready for work.
That day, Chipper quickly used the bathroom outside, so Robin had a few minutes to spare and slept again.
Usually, Robin hugged Jennifer goodbye. She gave her a kiss. She told her she loved her.
Robin intended to do that every morning.
But in a deep slumber, she didn’t hear her daughter go out the door for the last time.
Later that day, as she sat in the Payne County Courthouse waiting for news, she knew there was a wreck on Highway 33. And from phone calls, she knew Jennifer and Wilson weren’t at work.
Eventually, the trooper arrived at Payne County Courthouse with Jeff Briggs, Robin’s husband and Jennifer’s father, minutes after him.
After two hours and 30 minutes, Robin received the confirmation she didn’t need.
Jeff had been at the site of the accident, but he had to remain helplessly at a distance.
So did Fultz, who longs to blot out the memories that haunt her.
Fultz sat at her work desk when she received a call from an unfamiliar number.
An accountant at OSU, Fultz was checking her emails in the morning, but she had a feeling she needed to take the call.
The personnel director at Guthrie Public Schools told her Wilson and Jennifer weren’t at school. Fultz left work, calling her husband, Bruce. He hadn’t heard from Wilson.
As Bruce went to Wilson’s apartment, Fultz traveled the route her daughter took to school, desperately praying for her safety.
When she approached the wreck, she called Ashley.
“What color car does Jennifer drive?” Fultz asked, and Ashley knew.
The bright red vehicle was unmistakable. A policeman directed traffic. Fultz begged to know where her daughter was.
When Wilson received the news, she wailed.
“I kept thinking, ‘This is a nightmare; I’m gonna wake up from it,’” Fultz said.
In the midst of the chaos, an officer sat beside her, joining her in prayer.
“I wish I knew the officer’s name,” Wilson said. “At that time he told me, but shock set in after that point. I was out there for about 30 minutes.”
In Guthrie, Mike Simpson, the superintendent, contacted the Payne County Sheriff and traveled to the scene of the wreck, where he talked to a highway patrol trooper.
Simpson knew Jennifer’s and Wilson’s families when he worked as athletic director at Stillwater Public Schools. He called them and visited their homes. He made arrangements to bring counselors in to Guthrie Public Schools.
He witnessed how one man’s decision to drive under the influence disrupted a multitude of lives.
“Obviously, more than just two lives or three lives were touched with this, and the people that have had to deal with that tragedy reach easily into the hundreds,” Simpson said. “I can tell you, in 27 years in education, that day has been the most challenging day I’ve faced as an educator.”
As Robin and Fultz grieved over the loss of their daughters, Fultz had an idea.
“I would love to have this highway dedicated,” Fultz said.
Fultz wanted Highway 33, the place where her daughter’s life ended, to become the place where her memory was never forgotten.
Fultz called Gov. Mary Fallin’s office, but she didn’t get any help at first.
Although Fultz and Robin didn’t know each other until the day they lost their daughters, Robin knew how to put a plan in motion, helping achieve her goal.
“It may have been my idea, but the Briggs family made it happen,” Fultz said.
Rep. Cory Williams wrote the bill for the highway dedication, which is now a law.
“He didn’t want any kind of recognition for it,” Robin said. “He was a willing person. It all worked out.”
The day of the ceremony, Williams stood among the people beside Highway 33. Just after vehicles pass the Ampride gas station, they see the two names, even if just for an instant: “Jennifer Lea Briggs and Heather Wilson.”
More than three years after Robin and Fultz lost them, their daughters’ memories still fill their lives.
Fultz wears Wilson’s jewelry. She has a necklace showing a photograph of Wilson in her graduation cap and gown. Her fingers display an assortment of rings, including her daughter’s class ring and one with a glimmering amethyst, Wilson’s February birthstone, in it.
Fultz said she is still living a nightmare. Robin still harbors regret because of those few extra minutes of sleep.
But that brief moment of missing Jennifer walk out the door couldn’t erase Robin’s 24 years of memories with her.
“She was not only my daughter, but she was my friend,” Robin said. “She was my go-to person. We could talk about anything. I miss it a lot.”
Robin still has Chipper, the aging, toothless dog they shared, and said he keeps her going. She has the photographs of Jennifer smiling in front of Theta Pond, wearing her unique mortarboard. And she holds on to the collection of sketches and paintings Jennifer created.
The two young, eager teachers didn’t finish a semester of working at Guthrie Public Schools. They didn’t reach the one-year anniversary of receiving their education degrees from OSU. They didn’t get to influence and embrace future groups of Guthrie Junior High students who would have spent time in their inviting classrooms.
But in the short time they had, they used creativity, determination and compassion as the paint for making their life portraits and as the ink for writing their autobiographies.
The road sign is one of many reminders. And so was the crowd of people, those Jennifer and Wilson influenced, who attended the dedication.
“They cared about others more than themselves,” Simpson said. “And that’s the true calling of a teacher.”
Information from: Stillwater News Press, http://www.stwnewspress.com