Today, the New Berlin Hawk clutching a banner with the legend, “Coming Together,” is a bit difficult to see on the black granite grave marker in Fairview Cemetery but it is still there – a reminder of the promise of a young man’s life. It is quiet and peaceful on the top of the hill where David Scott Eccleston is buried, especially in October as the leaves fall and the nearby athletic fields lay dormant. The hawk is a replica of the one Dave sketched for the school newspaper only a week before his death. He designed it himself and was especially proud of his words, “Coming Together.”
Twenty years can seem like forever, but it has been that long since Central New York was rocked by the news of that brutal murder in New Berlin. I often think of Dave. In fact, he has never left my mind. Dave was one of my students in the Liberty Partnership Program in the old New Berlin High School and a young man of great quality. When I think of the passage of time, I realize Dave died before Bill Clinton was elected president. Dave never owned a mobile phone or saw a flat screen television. He never used a laptop computer. Hybrid automobiles, Kindles, Facebook and iPads did not yet exist. Today, Dave’s classmates and peers are in their late thirties, roughly my age at the time of his death. Some now have their own kids to send to college. Even the high school where Dave was a senior in 1992 no longer exists. However, what truly strikes me is despite the changes over the past two decades, David Eccleston is still seventeen.
Some moments are frozen in our memories. Tuesday, October 20, 1992, was a crystal clear, crisp autumn day. I remember virtually every second: the police and sheriff cars lining the main street below the high school when I arrived that morning; the sinking sense of dread when a colleague approached me as I entered my classroom and told me in a heavy tone that he wanted to talk to me; the overwhelming shock when I began to grasp the fact that a student I had taken on a college visitation the day prior was now beaten and dead; the emotional telephone call to my supervisor and my pitiful attempt to tell her that one of the students we had taken to Alfred State College twenty-four hours earlier, the one who had won a full scholarship and had been joyfully shooting baskets in the college gymnasium, was found murdered just yards from his own home in the village.
It was the start of a week of astounding pain and grief: the brutality of the crime, heartbroken family, friends and teachers, and the absolute avalanche of press coverage including a fleet of satellite trucks from sordid national television gossip shows with their satellite dishes blossoming along Route 8 below the high school. Almost every moment was emotionally overwhelming.
When I visit the cemetery and think back to the way things were twenty years ago, I realize that the details of that terrible day are not what most matter, however. What I remember is the way students, teachers and friends bonded in moments of mutual solace. For an entire week, that little community did, indeed, come together. Despite the media frenzy, there were tableaus of remarkable dignity: kids providing support to the Eccleston family; David’s peers, wearing their New Berlin athletic jackets, carrying his casket into St. Andrew’s Church; students signing a poster for Dave’s mother and brother; Dave’s aunt and uncle inviting his mother and brother to remain with them, protected from the press and the curious; friends comforting and reassuring each other over and over.
For me, there was one defining moment. After sitting numb in the church during Dave’s funeral, too exhausted even to cry, I attended a reception in the adjoining parish hall. A New Berlin High School junior, a student I did not really know at the time, walked up to me as I stood alone in the center of the crowded room and asked me how I was doing. Cary Anderson, one of Dave’s friends and a young man who had a good portion of his innocence taken from him that week, took the time to inquire about the well-being of a teacher he barely knew. That young man threw an emotional life belt to me that afternoon. I have never forgotten it.
David Eccleston has been gone for twenty years. He could have done so much with his life and I have no doubt that he would have. People speak of closure when death occurs. It is a silly concept, of course, because there is no such thing. Wounds can heal and we move on but we never close our memories to such astounding events. I often go to New Berlin and every now and then I turn up the long tree lined road that winds its way past the old high school to the top of the hill where Dave is buried. There is much to recall including the pathetic failure of the legal system to find justice in such a violent crime. But what I most remember are the many acts of kindness, support and genuine compassion I witnessed during those painful days and weeks. And I remember Dave, a young man full of enthusiasm, decency and remarkable ability, who, in death, brought a community together, and who is still seventeen and will be forever.
James S. Flanagan
Flanagan is a retired high school teacher of English and History and continues to serve as an adjunct instructor of English and History at Morrisville State College (Norwich Campus) where he has taught since 1994.