They were progressive men who made their marks in business, their communities, athletics and the business of athletics.
They were quick to reach out and grab your hand, lend theirs to you. That’s why it hurt so deeply when Illinois State associate men's basketball coach Torrey Ward, ISU Deputy Director of Athletics Aaron Leetch, Pub II patriarch Terry Stralow, investment officer Jason Jones, Sprint representative Andy Butler, business owner Scott Bittner and pilot Tom Hileman died in a plane crash near Bloomington’s Central Illinois Regional Airport.
Thursday marks a year since that foggy, dreadful day. So what should we do? How should we honor their memories?
Lindsay Leetch has been asked that a lot. So has Joan Stralow, Lyndsey Jones and all of the spouses and loved ones of the seven men who died while returning from the NCAA basketball national championship game in Indianapolis.
What can we do?
Be like them.
That is the wish of seven families bound so tightly by tragedy.
Be like them.
“Project 7” asks that you, me, all of us, perform seven random acts of kindness on April 7 in honor of the seven men. It is simple, perfect.
“We looked at it and we had two choices,” said Leetch. “We can either dwell on the bad situation, or we can make the most of it. These guys had their own unique traits, but one common thing they all carried was their kindness.
“They were great friends, great colleagues, great human beings. Nobody can bring our guys back. But this is something you can do. It’s what they would want … move forward, press on and let’s make something good of it.”
Consider it to be grass roots, organic. That’s how Leetch describes the plan the families arrived at through discussions as the anniversary grew near.
They do not seek credit or attention, just kindness.
“It’s about our wonderful, thoughtful, kind, loving guys,” said Stralow, whose husband turned Pub II into ISU’s signature hangout. “A year doesn’t make things better. It really doesn’t. But I think they would be happy with what we want to do.
“This world can be really ugly sometimes. It’s really sad the things that are going on. So, just smile. Hug somebody. Help an older person with their groceries. Embrace it however you want.”
How about we open our arms fully?
It’s what happened two years ago when another one of our own, 22-year-old Michael Collins, was killed by a drunk driver. A “Pay it Forward” campaign in Collins’ honor took root here and spread nationally.
These seven men were ours as well. They loved their families, loved ISU athletics and loved being among us.
“It wasn’t just the families who lost,” Leetch said. “The people who knew them, they lost as well.”
“In a lot of ways, it’s a private thing, and in a lot of ways it’s a community thing,” said Jones, whose husband was a popular Lincoln native and Illinois Wesleyan graduate. “This is a way to show appreciation for everyone’s kindness to us and to honor them (the men) for their kindness.
“We know they would love nothing more than to have people treating others with respect and kindness. It’s a chance in some way to repay the community by encouraging people to do nice things in the community.”
Andy Butler's fiance agreed. Jamie Fox said she's been overwhelmed by the support given to her. She hopes to return some of that kindness to her neighbors, the ISU athletic department, even the veterinary office where she takes her new puppy.
"It's going to be a hard day for us," she said of the families. "Being able to do something nice and put that energy to a better use is good."
Plans are for a Facebook page explaining the initiative. There will be no rules or guidelines, just a few words on the spirit of “Project 7.”
Where it goes from there will be left to us, all of us.
“It’s more heartfelt if people can think about it and do what feels right in their heart,” Leetch said. “Kindness doesn’t have to cost anything. Can it? Yes. But I can hold a door for somebody ... that kind of thing. Just simple things.”