ASC Scholarship is the Fruit of Forgiveness

(07-22-2009)

"I was just numb," said Kurt Cary, Adams State Classes of 1971 and 1978, recalling the days following the death 22 years ago of his nine-year-old son, Joshua. "At the time, all I could think of was revenge. My family was suffering a horrible loss. But it's so negative; it just tears you down more."

That realization began a healing process that has manifested the Joshua Thomas Cary Memorial Scholarship Endowment.

Joshua Cary was quite an accomplished third grader. His teacher, Raydeen Sigmon, wrote: "Joshua was one of those rare students that bring the joy of teaching back to a teacher. . . . Joshua had the self confidence and ability needed to accomplish any school task asked of him, and yet, the humility and concern for others that set him apart from the average student."

As a Cub Scout, he'd earned his Bobcat, Wolf, and Bear Badges. He loved scripture and was an active member of the Mesita Branch Primary, Church of the Latter Day Saints. He enjoyed the outdoors - camping, hunting, fishing. He also played football, and even took tap dance lessons to improve his skills. Joshua was "junior coach" of his dad's team, the Centauri wrestlers, and always traveled to State championships with the team. He also helped his grandparents with their pigs and sheep, and wanted to be a farmer or rancher when he grew up.

But Joshua was struck by a car May 15, 1987, as he crossed Hwy. 285 outside of Romeo, Colo. The driver, John Keeler, failed to notice the school bus unloading children. He had just finished his freshman year at University of Colorado and was taking the scenic route back home to New York.

That accident unfolded events that would have surprised both John Keeler and Kurt Cary at the time.

One Day at a Time

Cary and his wife, Shirley "Joan" Cary, Adams State Class of 1990, also had two daughters and infant twin sons; Joshua was their eldest.

"Over the years, people would ask me, 'How can you handle the loss?'" Cary said. "What choice did I have? I had a wife and kids I needed to support and take care of. For a long time, it was just putting one day after another."

At that point, Cary was school counselor and wrestling coach at Centauri High School. Cary retired from a long career in the North Conejos School District, where he started as a chemistry and physics teacher. He eventually became assistant principal and principal of Centauri High School, then for ten years was district superintendent. He was just appointed interim superintendent for the Centennial School District in San Luis, Colo. He is also an adjunct instructor for Adams State graduate teacher education and is co-owner of Valley Snorkel & Scuba.

"As a counselor, if I stepped outside myself, I realized that if I was going to reach any closure, to be able to handle the situation, I had to get to know this guy," Cary said. "I had to come to some resolution. I was prompted by my faith. Once I got to know him, I began to fully understand the miracle of forgiveness."

Cary's solution was to reach out to Keeler. The following summer the two attended counseling together, and Keeler helped out at the Cary ranch.

"Even though Kurt was very angry, I absolutely knew this was something I had an obligation to do," Keeler said. "When you're faced with that type of situation, you have to do anything and everything that is required of you - that's the way I was raised, and the way Kurt was raised and is raising his children - you don't have a choice." Thus began an unusual relationship that allowed both men to move forward, despite their pain.

Transforming Tragedy

After a hiatus of about five years, Keeler emailed Cary inquiring after his family. He had completed his degree at CU in Russian and political science, then earned a law degree from Tulane University in New Orleans.

"It was a breath of fresh air," Cary said. "I'd been wondering how John was doing, but didn't know how to locate him. This was gradual, but I'd gotten to the point where I could say 'I forgive you.' It was a big step."

The first in a long journey of mutual recovery.

Keeler, now a real estate developer, reflected: "There are many different ways people can emerge from these types of situations. As a result of the generosity and kindness of the Carys, and Kurt in particular, things went the right way for me - I'm in New York City, an established professional. It could have really spiraled downward, could have ruined my life. When I look at it, I credit Kurt with saving my life, in a way."

Last summer, Keeler again visited the San Luis Valley and met with the Cary family to pursue the idea of funding a scholarship in Joshua's memory. He initially wanted to create it anonymously, but Cary convinced him their story might be a consolation and inspiration to others.

"This event is the most powerful thing that has ever happened to me. I've come to terms with it and have embraced it," said Keeler, who is now the father of three young sons, including a set of twins. "Establishing the scholarship feels like another step in the journey, not a conclusion, but another piece in the process. It involves all these concepts: forgiveness, trust, understanding between people."

Cary also appreciates the bond they have formed.

"Not a day goes by that I don't remember, but you've got to learn how to deal with it. I know for a fact that I wouldn't have gotten here without my relationship with John. I don't know where I'd be now if I hadn't done this," Cary said. "Out of this tragedy, we were able to establish a relationship that brought something positive that someone else can benefit from."

ASC junior awarded first Joshua Cary Memorial Scholarship

Kurt Cary (left) presents sociology major Christina Agustin with the first scholarship created in memory of his son.

Kurt Cary (left) presents sociology major Christina Agustin with the first scholarship created in memory of his son.

Christina Agustin, an Adams State College junior sociology/criminology major from Blanca, Colo., is the first recipient of the Joshua Thomas Cary Memorial Scholarship, which provides one year's full tuition.

"I appreciate receiving the scholarship. It helps take the financial burden off my parents," she said. "The story of the scholarship is powerful. I will work as hard as I can to honor the memory of Joshua."

The Sierra Grande High School graduate is a first-generation college student. She hopes to become a victim's advocate.

All graduates of a San Luis Valley high school with a minimum GPA of 2.75 are eligible. The scholarship is available to an incoming or continuing student at Adams State.

By Julie Waechter