Celebrating the ubiquity of Ashley Laneri: 1993-2015

Story by Janie Magruder
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau

She was ubiquitous in life, seemingly everywhere at once — acting in Grand Canyon University’s Ethington Theatre, singing at its stellar music concerts, praying for and with her fellow students before rehearsals, enthusiastically piecing together costumes backstage as part of the crew.  She had an opinion and a story about everything, her friends say, and if she was ever silent, that was a problem.

Memories of Ashley Kathleen Laneri and examples of her considerable impact on GCU’s College of Fine Arts and Production, specifically, and on the University, in general, permeated every inch of her memorial service Saturday on campus. About 450 family members, friends, GCU administrators, faculty, staff and others filled First Southern Baptist Church of Phoenix for 90 minutes to laugh, cry, sing and share their love for the dark-haired beauty with the dazzling personality and contagious smile.

Ashley died March 13 from injuries she sustained in a car accident in Phoenix eight days before. The 22-year-old was to graduate in April from GCU with a bachelor’s degree in music with an emphasis in voice performance, summa cum laude.  She planned to go to graduate school for a degree in music therapy.

Ashley’s family has scheduled a memorial service for Monday, April 6, in Lomita, Calif., and her funeral and burial on Wednesday, April 8, also in California. On Thursday, April 23, Ashley’s parents, Eric and Kathy, and her siblings, Eric Jr., Ryan and Christy, will return to GCU to receive her diploma during commencement.

At Saturday’s memorial, Ashley’s cap, gown and diploma were displayed on the church altar, as were huge bouquets of flowers that included red roses, her favorite. Many of her friends wore red bows in their hair or hat bands or on their lapels because Ashley was “the red bow girl.”

A slideshow was projected on screens overhead, offering glimpses of Ashley’s life bubbling over with happy times. There was the sweet-faced baby, the gap-toothed, pigtailed birthday girl, the butterfly lover, the badge-earning Girl Scout, the classroom superstar, the goofball and the high school graduate who was thrilled to attend GCU.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone who was so excited to come to GCU as Ashley was,” said Dr. Juan Hernandez, COFAP’s assistant dean and director of its Music Department. “Ashley loved the theatre and music departments like her own family, and she was so encouraging and welcoming to our new students.”

Both departments were well represented at her service. Students sang as soloists and in groups, and Ashley’s lovely voice filled the room during a video of one of her auditions. An adapted reading from C.S. Lewis’ “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” was offered by senior Ryan Usher, senior Emma Lehtinen and junior Ryan Beamon.

A beautiful life

With Ashley’s father by her side, Kathy Laneri, wearing a pink “GCU Mom” T-shirt and a red bow in her hair, thanked God for the week between her daughter’s accident and her death when the family was able to learn much more about her from friends who texted, called and stopped by the hospital.

“We caught a glimpse into our girl’s life and know the impact she made, the people she touched and the beautiful life she had and has, here on earth and now with God,” she said. “We got to see another chapter of our daughter, the fullness of who she became.”

As a young girl, Ashley loved to play dress-up with her sister, dipping into their mom’s big jar of hair bows, makeup and clothing. It was not surprising that she chose to be on stage during college, too.

“She’s been a performer from the start,” Kathy Laneri said.  “I can’t remember a time when she wasn’t out there wanting to sing or dance or make funny faces for the camera.”

She also read a poem, “When Tomorrow Starts Without Me,” that David M. Romano wrote the year her daughter was born. Its conclusion, “So when tomorrow starts without me, don’t think we’re far apart, for every time you think of me, I’m right here in your heart,” seemed to bring comfort.

The service had lighter moments, too, such as when COFAP Dean Claude Pensis, following a flag presentation to the Laneri family by two GCU public safety officers, said, “That speaks to her ubiquity again that even security knew Ashley.” Michael Kary, a COFAP acting instructor who directed the young woman in 2014 in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (she played a wood nymph), pointed out her uncanny ability to be, well, everywhere.

Ashley was vice president of the GCU student chapter of the National Association of Teachers of Singing, and she auditioned for everything — Main Stage productions, Second Series, Improv and Arts Jam. She appeared in five Ethington shows (and was on the crew for many more), performed the role of Murgatroyd and acted as cast chaplain (and for the music department all last year) in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” in which she also was cast as Murgatroyd. Ashley also sang in three productions.

“Most honorably, she gave us her hands backstage, where she dressed and prepped her fellow students to perform, humbling herself so others could be lifted up,” Kary said.

Ubiquitous. “I think I can say that, even now, Ashley still fits that word,” he said. “She is with the creator of the universe, and to be so intimately with Someone who is everywhere is to share His ubiquity. She’s also here. Just like a piece of theatre that comes for a moment and dazzles and disappears, so did Ashley come into our lives and dazzle us for a while. However, also like a really great production, she sticks with us.”

Sophomore Johnni Medina told the congregation she couldn’t pick just one memory of her friend. Instead, she noted a trait in her that many students in the audience recognized — Ashley was always talking. Death has not silenced her, however.

“These past few weeks have been full of silence, which is really weird because Ashley’s friends are talkers, too,” Medina said. “But she keeps filling the silence. She’s made every single silence absolutely beautiful. Thank you, Ashley.”

Reflecting God's love

Reading from 1 Corinthians 13:13 — “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” — senior Taylor Kessler said her best friend demonstrated all three so well. Kessler ended her message on a comforting note, from Psalm 46:5: “God is within her, she will not fall. God will help her at break of day.”

Ashley was a very special person to sophomore Becca Owen, who read 1 John 4:11-19, which focuses on God’s great love for us and ends with, “We love because He first loved us.” Said Owen, “This reminds me of how much Ashley loved everything she came into contact with. She loved people deeply, and she is one of the people who taught me to love God.

“I believe that Ashley had God living in her.”

Of course, music filled the church during Ashley’s service. The program included a soothing performance of “On Eagle’s Wings,” by sophomore Fernando Ruiz, the mournful “Ave Maria,” by GCU vocal instructor Christopher Herrera and accompanied by Annie Taylor, Ashley’s accompaniest, and the hopeful “How Great Thou Art,” which the congregation sang together. Fourteen of Ashley’s girlfriends performed “At the Beginning” from the animated film, “Anastasia,” valiantly fighting back tears, then smiling sweetly through them as they sang, “Nothing’s gonna tear us apart.”

Directed by Hernandez and accompanied by pianist Mark Fearey, three dozen members of GCU’s choir also sang a piece that they, with Ashley, had performed last fall, “Luminous Night of the Soul.” And there was a video of Ashley’s sophomore audition for Arts Jam in which she performed the song, “Look in the Mirror.”

In introducing the choir and song, Hernandez encouraged the audience to “remember Ashley as a person who put her trust in a Savior who carries us through all the deepest parts of the night and also the brightest times.”

Kathy Laneri had begun her remarks Saturday by describing Ashley as “our butterfly who was always flittin’ and floatin.’” On the day of her daughter’s death, she noted in conclusion, she asked the many friends gathered at the hospital for a special favor. “I asked everybody to look for butterflies that day,” she said, “because all around Ashley is still flittin’ and floatin’.”


Contact Janie Magruder at 602-639-8018 or [email protected].


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