Aggie Bonfire began in 1909 as a scrap heap and grew over the years to be nearly 60 feet tall and built with about 7,000 logs stacked in a layer-cake design. Bonfire symbolized every Aggie’s “burning desire” to beat their rival, the University of Texas, in football and attracted tens of thousands of people to watch it burn.
Five years after the collapse that claimed the lives of 12 Aggies and injured 27, the Bonfire Memorial was dedicated on the exact location of the fallen Bonfire. The Bonfire Memorial embodies many layers of meaning associated with the Aggie Spirit — a deep sense of belonging, a strong spirit of teamwork, and leadership and an enduring sense of tradition that unites thousands. The Bonfire Memorial celebrates the tradition, history, and spirit of Texas A&M and the dedication of those involved in the tragic collapse of the 1999 Bonfire.
Timothy Doran Kerlee Jr. ‘03 was 17 years old and the youngest person killed in the collapse, but his bravery and selflessness will never be forgotten. Although he was partially crushed by logs, Kerlee pointed out other injured students to first responders before he would allow himself to be rescued. Kerlee was eventually freed from the stack and transported to the hospital, but he succumbed to his injuries about 40 hours later.
His parents, Janice and Timothy Kerlee Sr., have lived in Bryan-College Station for the better part of 19 years following that tragic day.
“We moved here from Memphis, Tenn., right after the Bonfire collapse because we wanted to help the students heal from the collapse,” Tim Kerlee Sr. said.
Their commitment to serving others, particularly the Aggie community, is one of the reasons the Kerlees were recognized as the 2003-2004 Texas A&M Parents of the Year. This honor is bestowed upon Aggie parents such as the Kerlees who exemplify the university’s core values of excellence, integrity, leadership, loyalty, respect and selfless service.
The Office of New Student and Family Programs is grateful for the Kerlees’ service to the university and proud to continue to work with them in connection with the Parents of the Year tradition. The Kerlees also remain involved with Squadron 16, the Corps of Cadets outfit in which their son was a member.
“Being an Aggie parent has given us a connection to many of the wonderful students, faculty and families here,” Janice Kerlee said. “The Aggie Spirit is contagious and brings out the best in people. Even though we are ‘adopted’ Aggies, we bleed maroon.”
Words of advice
The Kerlees had a few pieces of advice for parents and family members of current Aggie students. The first was to encourage students to get involved on campus and in the community as a way to truly connect with Texas A&M and the world around them on a deeper level.
“I think the traditions and core values are what make this university unique,” Janice Kerlee said. ” They give continuity from one generation to the next. The service to others and leadership opportunities are just as important as the academic curriculum in preparing students for life after college.”
The second tip they offered was for parents to make a concerted effort to stay in regular contact with their student. While that may mean simple weekly (or more frequent) conversations over the phone, some parents may have to step outside their comfort zone and become familiar with communication methods their student already uses.
“I don’t like it, but the only way I can keep track of what my grandkids are doing back in Virginia is to text them. They don’t know that telephones were made for making phone calls,” Tim Kerlee Sr. said, laughing. “And I follow my granddaughter on Instagram because she’s always posting things on there. I don’t ever post anything, but I go on there just to see what she’s doing.”
In addition to maintaining open communication with their students, the couple also encouraged parents to make those moments count.
“Parents should never end a conversation with either side feeling angry,” Janice Kerlee said. “Even if you disagree, you should make sure your love for your child is known.”
This year marks the 19th anniversary of the Bonfire collapse, and the Kerlees will once again walk down the gravel path at the Bonfire Memorial to their son’s portal for another Bonfire Remembrance Ceremony, a tradition begun by Janice Kerlee and now carried on by the students of the Traditions Council. While thousands of Texas A&M students and former students attend the ceremony each year, the Kerlees believe it can also be a special moment for parents of all generations of Aggies.
“Bonfire Remembrance is especially important to family members because it is a symbol of the Aggie Spirit that celebrates the living and honors the dead,” Janice Kerlee said. “We know our 12 Bonfire angels will never be forgotten. Once an Aggie, always an Aggie!”