Kathy Crabtree arose early the other morning, to get a jump-start on her day, to take on an activity calendar that is “unusually busy” of late.
At her church — St. John’s Lutheran in Bloomington — she’s a “BeFriender,” a listening ministry whose members visit those in difficult and/or transitional situations.
She’s also a “church mouse,” one of the folks who straighten the pew racks and replenish attendance pads after services.
She makes hospital visits, occasionally administers communion for shut-ins, makes food for funerals, and on Saturday evenings for her church’s 5 o’clock worship, mans the “Welcome Center” with a smile and warm greeting.
We mention this because back in December she underwent something else.
While riding in a school bus carrying the Normal West High School junior varsity girls basketball team back from a game in Champaign, her husband, Charlie Crabtree, was killed in a horrific, head-on collision with a semi-trailer truck that was barreling the wrong way along Interstate 74.
Learning of the accident in a 9 p.m. phone call from her sister-in-law, Anita Crowe, who said she'd heard from a daughter that relatives should go to the school for further news, Kathy did just that.
There, along with the dozens of others, she stood in a hallway awaiting any word, hoping her husband would be there to personally tell her all about the accident.
But Charlie was not there.
“We stood for what seemed like an eternity. I prayed for everyone on the bus,” says Kathy.
“Then I heard Anita say, '... it’s the coroner ...'"
And Kathy’s world crashed, too.
“I wailed. My daughter (Nikki) wailed. Other family and friends were crying. It was the most horrible day of my life.”
Charlie Crabtree was a hero at Normal West, a loved and revered guy who was, as Pantagraph columnist Randy Kindred would later call him, “West’s scorekeeper, P.A. announcer, unofficial head cheerleader and most devoted fan."
The morning after the crash, with Nikki, and her other daughter, Candi, who lives in New Lenox, Kathy and family made funeral arrangements. A few evenings later, they greeted more than 700 people at Calvert & Metzler Memorial Home.
A prayerful and good-humored woman who, along with Charlie, passed on such charm to their children, Kathy and the Crabtree women greeted all with smiles, hugs and words of encouragement, almost as if they were there to ease everyone else's sorrow.
Next morning, at the funeral, Charlie Crabtree was eulogized again, with his accolades and a massive list of life achievements, along with some that were not fully known.
“He was my stud muffin and love bunny,” Kathy was quoted in a eulogy by St. John’s pastor, the Rev. David Glesne, in a quip that filled the church with laughter.
At another point, Glesne related to the crowd that Charlie had waited until adulthood to be baptized. “In other words," mused Glesne, “it was after he married Kathy that he realized he was going to need the Lord.”
Up went another uproarious laugh.
Then Kathy went home.
Like all the others who live to see a loved one’s death, she confronted a closet of clothes, all the belongings, a TV without a partner and suddenly, after nearly 47 years of marriage, an empty bed.
“I've cried probably every day, mostly when I go to bed or when I get up," says Kathy. "But one thing I know about death is that life goes on no matter what happens.”
Only hours after that experience back at West of learning of her husband’s death, amidst all the emotion, Kathy faced a question of whether the Wildcat team should play a game the next night against then-reigning state champion, Peoria Richwoods.
Kathy said, “Well, of course! You’ve got to play this game!”
A day later, she went to a Peoria hospital to visit two others seriously injured in the accident.
A few nights after that, she stood mournful, but smiling, on the basketball court as homage was paid to Charlie.
“Was Charlie perfect? Hell to the no,” she wrote in a note to friends a few days after the funeral. “But he was pretty close as far as I am concerned.”
And then Kathy Crabtree — ever thankful, she says, for the “community-wide outpouring” that helped her — went back to where she’d been.
She went back to the Welcome Center.
She went back to visiting and listening to others.
A former administrative assistant in Unit 5 schools and still active in its doings, she went back to monthly lunches with friends.
Since then, the family has launched “Live Like Charlie,” a fund to help others and “have something good come from Charlie’s death.” There are “#Live Like Charlie” T-shirts. The Crabtrees have attended and donated at West fundraisers and are helping with a May event named after Charlie that will raise money for the school’s “Promise Council.”
Later this month, with Kathy putting off a knee surgery because “I’d not miss this,” the town of Normal will, if all goes as planned, name the press box at Maxwell Park after Charlie, where he used to announce NCWHS softball games.
“Even in the dark days immediately following that tragedy, Kathy was thinking of others,” says Gudrun Dunt, who heads up membership and member care at St. John’s. “She called and asked that I pick out prayer shawls so that she could take them to the hospital for the coach and bus driver involved in the accident. She arranged for lunch for the St. John’s staff at a time when we were navigating the loss of not only Charlie but four other long-term members of the church. Her faith and her church family have profoundly impacted her recovery. She is grieving with hope and living each day as a tribute to Charlie. Kathy’s love and encouragement over the years has inspired me to be a better person, a better Christian and to ‘live like Charlie’ each day.”
And so it goes, with all those reasons that Kathy’s calendar is so busy these days.
“Live Like Charlie?”
Indeed we can all aspire.
Live Like Kathy?
Could be even tougher.