• 45°

At Carson, an empty seat, missing smile

By Kathy Chaffin
kchaffin@salisburypost.com
There were only 14 students in April Freeze’s Character, Achievement and Teamwork equals Success (CATS) session when classes resumed Tuesday at Carson High School.
There should have been 15. There would have been 15 if Melissa Beth Vanderburg had lived to start her senior year at the high school.
Tragically, Vanderburg, 18, of 703 Yost Road, was killed Aug. 13 when she pulled her car out in front of an oncoming truck at the intersection of Old Concord and Old Beatty Ford roads.
Freeze and the students in the school’s adviser-advisee program discussed the death of their friend and classmate in their first session Tuesday morning. “She was always happy,” said Freeze, who first met Vanderburg when she was assigned the CATS group last year.
Hanna Bradley said Vanderburg was her best friend and that she loved going to cruise-ins and hanging out with her older brother, Robert. “Everybody knew her brother before they met him because she talked about him so much,” she said.
The daughter of Dolores Ann Hart Carter and Thomas Leroy Vanderburg, she was following her brother to a drag strip when the accident happened, Bradley said. Robert saw the accident in his rearview mirror and returned to the scene.
Fellow student C.J. Hutchinson said Melissa smiled a lot. “You would never see her without a smile on her face,” he said. “That’s just how she was.”
Dylan Lefler said Melissa’s favorite color was yellow. “Even if she didn’t wear it, she’d have a yellow pocketbook or backpack,” he said. “You would never find Melissa anywhere without at least a little bit of yellow.”
“It kind of matched her personality,” Hutchinson added. “Bright.”
Bradley carried Vanderburg’s yellow cloth pocketbook to school on Tuesday. She had ordered it from an Avon book Bradley had brought to school, and Bradley had picked it out along with some other items and clothes when Vanderburg’s parents asked if there was anything of their daughter’s that she wanted.
She also wore a camouflage shirt in Vanderburg’s honor Tuesday with her photograph and the words “RIP Melissa Vanderburg” and her birth and death dates on the back.
Explaining Vanderburg’s love of camouflage, Lefler said, “She was about as redneck as they come.”
Vanderburg also disliked shoes, Bradley said, and wore flip-flops even in the winter.
The laughter turned to tears when Mercedes Goodwin broke down talking about what she liked best about Vanderburg. “She was the kind of person who didn’t care where you came from,” she said. “She didn’t care how much money she had.”
Lefler revived the laughter when he said the class was not nearly as loud without Vanderburg. “She laughed a lot,” he said. “She was always laughing about something.”
Freeze recalled when they were trying to tape a segment on “Hugs, not drugs” to share with the rest of the school on intercom insights. “She kept saying ‘Drugs, not hugs,’ ” she said. “Three times we had to tape that because of Melissa.”
Hutchinson said, “She might have done it on purpose just to make us laugh.”
Bradley said Vanderburg hated drugs and was a devoted Christian. She attended Carmel United Methodist Church on Old Concord-Salisbury Road, where her funeral was held on Aug. 16. Vanderburg was buried wearing a camouflage shirt over a white undershirt and a pair of khaki shorts.
“A dress would so not have been Melissa,” Freeze said. “That was just not her.”
Jason Aldean’s song, “She’s Country,” was included in a DVD made from photos chronicling her life that was played at the funeral. Freeze said the CATS students were planning to play the DVD as part of their intercom insights presentation in November. “It’s a slide show of her life.”
Vanderburg was nicknamed “Skunkie” by her closest friends because of the blonde streak she sometimes put in her hair, which Bradley said she colored dark brown.
Oftentimes during the 25-minute CATS session, Bradley said, Vanderburg, who had beautiful eyes, would put on makeup. “She wanted to be a cosmetologist,” she said.
Freeze said Vanderburg was an active participant in the daily sharing time and oftentimes started the discussions.
Bradley said Melissa drove a red Mustang, which her older sister, Christina Marie, had wrecked twice when she owned it.
“She didn’t spend,” she said of Vanderburg. “If she did talk on the phone, it would be for like two seconds and then she’d hang up.”
They were planning to spend the next day ó Bradley’s birthday ó shopping and watching a movie at Concord Mills Mall.
Bradley said she thought Vanderburg would be always be a part of her life.
“I’d tell her she would be my best friend forever,” she said. “We talked about getting old and racing our motor scooters in an old person’s home …
“She told me one time, ‘When I die, I don’t want people to wear black. I want people to have a party and not a funeral.’ ”
Bradley was among some of Vanderburg’s closest friends who held a prayer service around the flag pole at shortly after 7 a.m. Tuesday. The youth minister from her church also attended.
Freeze said Vanderburg was the first student she had lost since leaving nursing to become an allied health teacher two years ago. “I hope it makes kids realize that life is very fleeting,” she said.
It’s sad to think about what Vanderburg could have done with her life, Freeze said.
In her 18 years, however, the smiling and laughing student who loved camouflage and yellow made a lasting impact.
“It was important to Melissa to be an individual,” Freeze said. “She didn’t ever try to do what was popular. She was just who she was.”
Principal Henry Kluttz called Vanderburg’s death a terrible tragedy.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, and you never quite get over it,” he said. “They’re here today, and suddenly, their lives are over … It’s just a sad time for her family and her friends and the school.”
Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249.

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