By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer
It was a gorgeous June day in 1990 when Tom Karels’ son, William, disappeared under the water during an afternoon of riding inner tubes with his buddies.
Karels, a burly guy with a get-er-done attitude, remembers wading through a river with his coworkers in rural Janesville, desperately searching for his son. And when Billy was found, he remembers disappearing for a while himself, doing what any parent needs to do when a child is lost.
While telling his son’s story, he pauses and his eyes tear up. He apologizes.
“I didn’t bring a hankie today,” he says. “He’d have been 38 ... He is 38.”
Karels and others came to the One Bright Star Memorial in Ray Elrandson Park in Mankato Sunday to spruce the place up. They called it a “beautification day,” or a day to take care of the place that means so much to people who have lost children.
They pulled weeds, added sand in the cracks between the paver stones, laid new mulch around the perennials and scrubbed the giant limestone star — the centerpiece of the memorial and symbol of the organization — to get the footprints and skateboard scuffs off of it.
Sunday’s spruce up was the second annual for the organization. Holding an event to keep the memorial clean gives them a joyous occasion to visit. So many other times, the visits aren’t so joyous.
Vicki Meyer’s son, Brandon, died in a car accident on May 19, 1995. He’d be 32 years old had he survived that crash.
“It never gets easier,” she says, while fellow griever Linda Janavaras hugged her. “We get through it, but we’re still dealing with it. He’ll always be 17 even though he should be 32. He was two weeks from graduation.”
Having the One Bright Star Memorial, she says, has been “extremely helpful.” It gives her a chance to come during the week and be alone in a place where she can remember her son.
“It’s very peaceful,” she said. “I sit on the bench and it’s just very relaxing.”
Janavaras, whose son John died at age 15 in the meningitis outbreak that hit Mankato in 1995, says that, for her, it’s easier to come to the big star in the park than to go to the cemetery.
Here, the presence of children is everywhere. On Sunday, while they beautified the memorial, kids played tennis, climbed monkey bars and tossed a Frisbee back and forth, all within a few yards of the memorial. There was even a birthday party taking place, complete with a little girl of about 3 getting a near-life-sized pony toy that kids took turns riding.
“We chose this park,” she said, “because there are children here.”
Lisa May, whose son Thomas was killed by a gun in his home, said the memorial and the One Bright Star group has been a great resource for families.
And to continue helping families, she said the group has recently begun printing journals to give to families. They come with inspiring words from some of the parents whose children are on the One Bright Star Memorial wall, where plaques with children’s faces mark their birth and death dates.
“Our organization needed some reason to exist beyond the memorial,” she said.
One negative about the memorial: some have chosen to use it for recreation.
“The star isn’t something to play on,” Janavaras said.