Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by David Kadlubowski
GCU News Bureau
How are you standing right now? How are you walking? How are you here?
More than one person has asked Grand Canyon University student Sarah Tedeschi those questions since the death of her fiance, Taylor White. They were finalizing the details for their April 28 wedding on Bainbridge Island, Wash. But everything changed April 8.
That’s when White, a 21-year-old GCU athletic training major, was jogging with a friend near 31st Avenue and Camelback Road and was struck and killed by a white SUV after entering a crosswalk. He died on the scene.
With a group of White’s friends standing behind her on stage, Tedeschi told the crowd of about 300 at the University’s Celebration of Life ceremony Tuesday night on the Quad that this is how she makes it from day to day: “Taylor’s faith in Christ is what has honestly inspired me. Taylor was not afraid to die. He woke up every day and didn’t know what was around the corner but knew God would be with him at every step. And that’s how I have chosen to live my life from this day forward, knowing that every little thing that I do with my life means something.”
Tedeschi was one of five speakers who honored their loved ones at the Celebration of Life – a ceremony to honor those in the GCU family who have died over the past academic year.
Also remembered were Christian Applegate, Roy Pietrek, Keisha Nicole Oyola Perales and Dr. Tiffany Mealman.
Dr. Tim Griffin, Pastor and Dean of Students, reflected on the fragility of life in his address to the crowd. He quoted Scripture from James 4:14: “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
“It seems like life goes very quickly,” he said, especially when thinking of the young lives suddenly lost, like that of White. “This life passes. We are but a mist, the Scriptures tell us, and we’re here for a period of time and we vanish away.”
He said this campuswide Celebration of Life was organized to help uplift and support the campus community during their time of grief.
“Our hope was that we didn’t need to have any kind of a service this evening,” he said. “But as life happens, we had some tragedies along the way, and we’re here tonight to hopefully, not only mourn together and remember together, but to celebrate their lives together. I hope this will be an evening where we can do that.”
Griffin said while families will hold funerals in their hometowns for those who have died – White’s will be in Colorado Springs this weekend – “we definitely wanted to do something for our students.”
Like White, Dr. Tiffany Mealman, who taught biochemistry, also was remembered by her family and friends for her steadfast faith.
Mealman was just 33 when she died in January. She had fought cancer since 2012.
College of Science, Engineering and Technology instructor Rebecca Socia shared an office with Mealman when she first started working at GCU.
“We spent many a long day grading lab reports and just getting the opportunity to share,” said Socia.
The thing that stands out about Mealman was that she was extremely dedicated to her students.
“She wanted to be there for them every single day,” Socia said. “It was very humbling to watch her struggle through her battle with cancer, and when her body was not strong, she would still be here, and she would still be worried about how her students were doing, not how she herself was feeling. She would come to work while on chemo with her chemo pack, and she would teach and go through long days, even if she was so tired and so worn out.”
Mike Spagnola spoke about his friend, Christian Applegate, who was just 21 years old when he died Aug. 7, 2017, from injuries sustained in a traffic accident at his home in Modesto, Calif. He had just finished his junior year at GCU, where he was pursuing a business degree in marketing.
Spagnola said Applegate loved dirt-bike riding, off-roading, camping and hiking – and he loved people.
“The contact list on his phone looked like one from a small corporation,” Spagnola said. “He knew just about everyone walking around campus. He was known for stopping each and every one of them to see how their day was going. A quick trip to Chick-fil-A with Christian would often take hours.”
Applegate, too, had a strong relationship with God, Spagnola said, and had John 15:13 tattooed above his heart: “Greater love has no one than this — to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
“He truly expressed a servant’s heart and was seen as a man of God. … GCU stresses the fact that we are here as students to find our purpose. Christian’s purpose was to be an example of a Godly man and lead others on the right path,” Spagnola said.
Keisha Nicole Oyola Perales also was taken from the GCU community in a vehicle accident on New Year’s Eve.
Jeanette Plasencio, Student Ministry Coordinator for the Office of Spiritual Life, said of her friend, “Keisha will forever be one of the boldest students I’ve ever had. … If she was curious about something, she would just ask about it. She didn’t wonder about things, she would just find out. She was also not afraid to speak up and let people know what she thought. Somehow she would manage to do so in normal Keisha fashion with her sassiness but somehow throws in a little bit of grace in it, too.”
Plasencio said, “How can I describe and do justice for the life that she lived? … I know Keisha is having too good of a time in heaven right now. … As you remember her, remember who she was and the life that she lived. She loved Jesus so much.”
Jeremy Grigsby honored his friend Pietrek, a GCU psychology major who was 19 when he died on Dec. 12, 2017.
He remembered Pietrek as “the best person you could ever ask to call a friend” and recalls first meeting him and hearing his famous words, “What’s the move?”
“This truly is the best way to describe Roy – a kind gentleman with a heart bigger than life itself. If you needed to hang, Roy was there. If you were having a bad day and just needed someone to hug, Roy was there,” Grigsby said.
He added, “Although no one will stay in your life forever, it will be remembered in your heart forever. Sometimes God doesn’t put people in our life to stay but to show us what we deserve in life, whether it be a friend to listen on the worst of days or the brother you were always searching for.”
Tedeschi, the evening’s final speaker, wore the lime green shorts White wore when he met her.
“Taylor was truly a one-of-a-kind person. For one thing, his mustache, his mullet, his really short lime green shorts. He lived life boldly. He wasn’t afraid to live his life to the fullest.”
She and many of his friends at the ceremony donned lime green bracelets and gray T-shirts with the hashtag #LiveLikeTWhite emblazoned on them.
Tedeschi said that before she met Taylor, “I remember asking God to bring me someone who loved me with their whole entire being, their whole heart. … Literally, a week later, I met Taylor.”
She also shared the Bible verse the couple chose for their wedding, from Song of Solomon 8:6-7, “Set me a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is as fierce as the grave, the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it. If a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be condemned.”
“That is how Taylor lived his life,” she said. “It’s really interesting that this verse talks about how love is as strong as death. I know that his love did not die with him. His love is inside of us.”
The ceremony ended with songs from the GCU Worship Team and friends and family releasing balloons in colors chosen to represent each person being remembered. Attendees also were invited to write notes to be sent to the honorees’ families.
How is Tedeschi standing right now?
It is that faith in Christ that each of the people who passed away embraced.
“The smile, the grace, the mercy that you show to the people around you, that’s how we are called to be as Christians,” she said. “… We’ve seen how fast life is, how quickly it can be given and taken away. I hope today you know Jesus, just like Taylor.”
You can reach GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at 602-639-7901 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LanaSweetenShul.