It has been one week since five nursing students from Georgia Southern University were killed in a traffic accident on Interstate 16.
We all have been sad for their families, the university and the Statesboro community. You probably have seen drawings of the school’s eagle mascot shedding a tear.
The news hit home last Wednesday when I heard from my sister, Sally. My niece, Sarah Davis, was roommates and a sorority sister of one of the young women, Emily Clark. They had been close friends since their freshman year in 2012.
Sarah, of course, is devastated. She had the sad duty of picking out the clothes Emily was buried in three days ago. We continue to hold Sarah especially close in our thoughts and prayers.
I also got a message from my longtime friend, Joe McDaniel, the pastor at Musella Baptist Church. Joe was emotional when he mentioned the five young women and their families. He said he was praying for Sarah.
Hearing the news took him back to a sad place. It happened 50 years and six months ago. His heart was heavy again.
Joe was a freshman at Georgia Southern in the fall of 1964. He did not own a car, so he often got rides home with friends on the weekends.
In those days, there was no I-16. To get from Statesboro to Macon, most students would travel Ga. 57 through towns like Wrightsville and Irwinton. Or they might choose to go U.S. 80, connecting the dots between Swainsboro, Dublin and Jeffersonville.
Joe lived in Room 207 at Sanford Hall. His roommate was Lamar Harris, a sophomore. They had been friends at Willingham High School. Lamar had been manager of the Rams football team. He was a distance runner on the track team, where his size-14 shoes earned him the nickname “Foots.”
Bill Burnett and Billy Smallwood lived across the hall from Joe at the dormitory. In June, he had walked down the aisle with them for graduation exercises at the City Auditorium. They all were members of the Willingham High Class of 1964.
Joe had planned to go home on Nov. 13 to attend the big rivalry football game between Willingham and Lanier. It was a Friday the 13th.
Harris, Burnett and Smallwood were riding home with another Georgia Southern student, Lewis Davis, who had graduated from Lanier.
They offered Joe a ride, too, but he did not want to cut his sociology class.
He got to Macon in time to eat with his parents, Billie and Dot McDaniel, at their home on Ormond Terrace. As the supper dishes were being put away, Joe watched the local TV news. There had been a terrible automobile accident on Ga. 57 in Twiggs County about 4 p.m.
He listened as they called the names of the three young men who died. All were students at Georgia Southern. All were graduates of Willingham High School.
Lamar Harris. Bill Burnett. Billy Smallwood.
Davis, who was driving, was critically injured but not killed. A front tire had blown out. He lost control into the path of an approaching car on a hill.
Joe was 17 years old. He could have been a passenger in that car. He had cut his sociology class a few times before.
Why not this time? Why had he decided to stick around and sit through a lecture on the afternoon of the biggest football game of the year?
There was a pall over Porter Stadium that night. The Willingham High family had experienced the same kind of grief two months earlier when Brad Henderson, the son of Coach Billy Henderson, was killed, along with his girlfriend, in a wreck on Labor Day weekend.
That Sunday, Joe attended all three funerals of his friends.
“It was one of the worst days of life,” he said. “My parents drove me back to Statesboro in the dark. When we got to the dorm room, I had to clean out his stuff. Back in those days, we kept everything in foot lockers. We were both south Macon guys. We didn’t have a lot of clothes.”
Lamar was president of the sophomore class at Georgia Southern and wrote sports for the school newspaper, the George-Ann. He had been active in the youth group and sang in the choir at Southside Methodist Church on Houston Avenue in Macon.
He wanted to be a Methodist minister.
At the time, Joe did not realize that was his calling, too. He became a high school coach. He later became a minister at Mabel White Baptist Church and has been the pastor at Musella Baptist since 2010.
We met for breakfast Tuesday morning. He told me about the small stereo he had taken with him to college. Lamar owned every record Roy Orbison ever made.
“He called him ‘Roy Boy,’” said Joe. “We would go to sleep at night listening to those songs.”
Now, every time Joe hears about a tragic car accident ... or it’s Friday the 13th on the calendar ... or he picks up his high school yearbook ... or he hears a Roy Orbison song on the radio ... the sadness sweeps over him again.
He doesn’t expect it will ever go away.