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One year later, ND remembers Chad Sharon

Claire Heininger | Thursday, February 12, 2004

His rector remembers him as “Smiling Chad.”

The Notre Dame community remembers him as the mysterious disappearance that became a tragic loss.

But his father just remembers him as a boy with a dream.

A year after the body of freshman Chad Sharon was found floating in the St. Joseph River, his father Steve wanted the campus his son had loved so much to remember him the same way. In a letter addressed to “all our dear friends at Notre Dame,” Steve and his wife Jane, of Pelican Lake, Wis., wrote to express their gratitude to the University community that offered their son a world of opportunities – and now offers them a world of strength.

“We just wrote it to thank everyone … we’ve sure gotten a lot of support,” Steve Sharon said. “That was [Chad’s] dream in life, to continue his education, to go to Notre Dame, and he got to realize it for a short time.”

The Sharons’ letter will be read at a Memorial Mass in the Fisher Hall chapel at 5:15 tonight. Father Mark Poorman, vice president for student affairs, will join Sharon’s former rector Father Robert Moss as the celebrants.

“I think the Notre Dame family feels his loss very keenly,” Poorman said. “At the same time, on a Christian campus, we have to remember that he’s at home with God. I encourage everyone to come out to Mass [tonight] and celebrate Chad’s life.”

Moss said that he planned to call the Sharons after the Mass’s reception, which will include the dedication of a plaque and the announcement of a tree to be planted in the spring to honor Chad Sharon’s memory.

“His RA put it so well last year at the funeral – he was ‘Smiling Chad,'” Moss said. “He was so anxious, so happy about being here, so glad to be a part of ND – just a wonderful spirit.”

Sharon’s close friends at Notre Dame praised that spirit, saying that the sincerity and contentment they remembered in Sharon was still a part of their everyday lives.

“We don’t ever forget him. He was a great guy,” said junior Danita Altfillisch, who attended high school with Sharon in Merrill, Wis. “His dad is always saying how Chad wouldn’t have wanted us to be sad and mourn, just to be happy, because that’s how Chad was.”

Tom Gorman, who lived on the third floor of Fisher across from Sharon last fall, agreed that Sharon would not have wanted his friends to dwell on the negative.

“He would want us to go out and have a normal day,” Gorman said. “He was just that kind of person – he never did anything for himself. It was always for everyone else. That’s how we remember him in Fisher.”

Fisher freshmen have had this memory passed along, as well, through the efforts of upperclassmen. Gorman said that during Freshman Orientation, several new residents saw Sharon’s portrait hanging in the hallway and asked him who it was. Gorman told them, and then cautioned them about their own actions.

“We’ve been pushing it on the freshmen – it’s a tough learning tool, but you have to learn from it,” Gorman said. “It becomes subconscious. Always jump in cabs. When people leave, leave with them.”

Sharon’s death occurred after he left a Corby Street party alone at around 2 a.m. on Dec. 12, 2002. He was reported missing by Fisher Hall staff on Dec. 13, prompting a comprehensive investigation by both Notre Dame Security Police and state authorities. Notre Dame and local businesses offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to Sharon’s safe return as helicopter and dog searches were conducted throughout the local area for the next two months. On the afternoon of Feb. 12, his body was discovered partially submerged underneath the river’s Angela Bridge by a construction employee working near the site.

While he described it as an isolated tragedy, Poorman expressed hope that Sharon’s situation would strike a chord with students who venture off campus into what can often be dangerous territory.

“Chad’s death was a tragic accident that reminds us how fragile life truly is,” he said. “It is difficult to know how to prevent a similar situation. It just reminds us to be as mindful as possible in looking out for each other, especially when students find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings off campus.”

He added that he and other University officials had kept in contact with the Sharons since their son’s death.

“Steve and Jane are wonderful people, and I’ve grown close to them in the course of this whole ordeal,” Poorman said.

Bill Kirk, associate vice president of residence life, said that he speaks with the Sharons “about once a month,” and that he had invited them to the Mass. When they could not attend, Kirk said, they proposed the idea of the letter, which will be published in The Observer on Friday.

“We sure would’ve liked to have been there with everybody,” Steve Sharon said, but he and Jane both faced time constraints from their full-time jobs. Sharon said that he and his wife had decided to celebrate their son’s dream by creating a scholarship fund for a student from Merrill to attend the University.

“We wanted to pass it on in his name,” Steve Sharon said. “He just loved Notre Dame.”

Kirk encouraged students feeling intense loss to respond to the positivity of the Sharons’ wishes.

“We gather so often in prayer to celebrate life, and we plan to do that [tonight,]” Kirk said. “We want to celebrate the time he was with us.”

Altfillisch echoed these thoughts.

“For those that knew him, don’t mourn,” she said. “Just remember him, remember his smile, remember his spirit.”