Luis and Yvonne Melendi live by the water in the Florida Keys, where life moves at a leisurely pace and shoes are optional most of the time. One of their favorite pastimes is their speedboat, which they take out most weekend afternoons, speeding over the salt water with music playing and cold drinks in a cooler. They are fun-loving, warm, hospitable people, as I learned when I visited them last October; they are likely to offer you a cocktail in the middle of the afternoon with an airy, “It’s five o’clock somewhere!”
It is easy to see how happy they might have been.
Most of us in the University community know their story by heart: how their daughter Shannon, an Emory sophomore, disappeared forever from a softball field near campus on March 26, 1994. The high-profile case drew national attention, but despite a series of leads—a mysterious phone call, Shannon’s ring left in a telephone booth—a body was never found, and no charges filed.
More than a decade later, a dogged prosecutor breathed new life into the case and ultimately won a remarkable conviction, with some help from the murderer himself: Colvin “Butch” Hinton, formerly the top suspect, had spoken of killing Shannon to fellow prison inmates while serving time for another crime. Thanks to the determination of prosecutor John Petrey and the supporting roles of several Emory alumni, including district attorneys Jeff Brickman 89L and Gwen Keys Fleming 93L, the case finally drew to a close in late 2005.
But there is no closure for the Melendis—only a bittersweet relief that Hinton can no longer do harm. “You don’t move on,” said Yvonne Melendi, gazing out over the water. “The scar tissue gets thicker, and you are able to cope a little better. But we still have those days when we look at each other and say, it’s okay, get in bed, pull the covers over your head and cry. It’s a Shannon day.”
The Melendis and their younger daughter, Shannon’s sister, remember Shannon through stories and the many pictures that Luis, a photographer, took during her nineteen years. But they also honor her through their active support of tougher criminal laws. In 2005, a Miami-Dade County law was passed in Shannon’s name requiring workers in public parks to undergo background checks. “What happened to us cannot be changed,” Luis said, “but because of it, changes can be made.”
Luis, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba via Spain in the 1960s, was unable to attend college because he had to work to help support his family; he was proud to be able to send his daughter to Emory. If she were alive, Shannon would have celebrated her ten-year reunion with her class last year.
In this issue of Emory Magazine, we pay tribute to some of life’s most poignant transitions: the procession from college student into adulthood, the journey toward starting a family, and even the most profound of all passages, that of life into death.
We celebrate Commencement with special attention to those who have made each student’s graduation possible—the parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, siblings, and families of the Class of 2007. The march of the Golden Corps of the Heart, those alumni who graduated fifty years ago and more, reminded us with their golden robes and their stately pace of the past—and the future. A half-century from now,
this vibrant graduating class, so full of youthful possibility,
will return to march in their place.
In his Commencement speech, senior class orator Zachary Manfredi 07C spoke of the “conflicting and competing emotions” brought about by the experience of graduation, the pang of loss that accompanies the pride of accomplishment.
“This pain comes from the realization that the world we have known for the past four years is vanishing,” he said. “Many of us may never meet again. This, I believe, is our small preview and taste of oblivion. Graduation in this way represents a death. It is a reminder of our mortality.”
We also were reminded of our mortality this spring by an Emory conference on changing the way we die, the inspiration for Associate Editor Mary Loftus’s story on what has been called the taboo subject of our time. Americans on the whole are living longer than ever before, but despite medical advances, many are seeking greater control and comfort in their last days. Regardless of age, most of us know loss, and have likely exchanged nods with death, if only in passing. We know we will meet again.
We mark our loss in countless ways, from formal rituals to the most private of tributes. Margaret Blevins 87T, a hospice chaplain, has seen many families through their darkest hours, often just holding a hand or listening to stories about their loved one. Her husband, John Shippee, has become a patient activist of sorts since he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2006, speaking openly about the dying process at conferences, churches, and community events. Dawn Francis-Chewning 79C took a critical lesson from the deaths of her parents, her husband, and her best friend: to prepare for her own. And Roy Hoffman remembers his dad, Charles Hoffman 31L, by bringing him to life on paper with memories and details so vivid you can almost smell the aged wood of his desk.
Earlier this summer, my father’s family gathered in southern Florida, where his parents once lived, to honor them with an informal memorial service. Like the Melendis, my grandparents loved the water, so we chartered a boat and sailed near their favorite beach. One by one, we scattered a handful of their ashes to the waves, followed by a white rose.
As the roses drifted away on the surf, my dad shared a few memories of his parents. He then raised a glass of champagne in a farewell toast that reminded us we are on borrowed time; what we can strive for is to live as well and fully as my grandparents did. “Goodbye,” he said simply. “It was a wonderful visit.”
—Editor Paige P. Parvin 96G