Families honor lost loved ones with memorials

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 17, 2014

On July 6, Patty Burgdoff would’ve celebrated her 16th birthday. But the young girl with a big smile and dark brown hair never got a driver’s license and never even celebrated her ninth birthday.
In December 2006, she was killed in an automobile accident on U.S. 29 in front of Gary’s Barbecue restaurant — the victim of a drunken driver.
Patty was a passenger in a car with her best friend Justen Morgan and his mother, Shania Thompson, and stepfather, Michael. The four had just left Gary’s Barbecue and barely pulled out of the parking lot when officials said their car was plowed into by a drunken Ross Edward Neese. His blood alcohol content was nearly three times the legal 0.08 limit. In 2008, Neese accepted a plea deal on the third day of the trial.
It was not long after her death that a white cross was erected in the median where her life ended.
The roadside memorial is as fresh as if it had just popped up. The family continues to maintain it.
Handmade painted crosses, teddy bears, ribbons, flowers, candles and other mementos have become the landscape of roads and streets throughout Rowan County, marking the lives lost there.
Patty’s father, Donnie, and grandfather, Duane, erected a 4-foot-by-4-foot cross they created and painted white. The cross has been in the median and has only been moved twice, once to replace after it was believed to be stolen and a second time so Duane could repaint it. The family, which includes Patricia, whom Patty is named after, have since her death mowed the grass in the median and changed the cross at holidays and birthdays.
Last year the family placed three balloons on the cross, one of which had a princess on it. The princess balloon was the only one to float away. Pat said she believes her granddaughter, Patty, took it.
The family also joined the Adopt-a-Highway program and clean a stretch of U.S. 29, Lentz Road and Main Street four times a year in Patty’s memory. Every four years the family renews a contract to continue to adopt that same section of roads.
Pat gets on Facebook and asks for volunteers, and they can often see about a dozen or so people ready to help clean.
The Burgdoffs do it, Donnie said, simply “to keep her memory alive.”
They don’t want anyone to forget Patty and want to bring awareness to drunk driving and speeding.
“It makes you feel good that her name is still in Rowan,” Donnie said.
“It gives me some sense of comfort,” Pat said.
Cynthia Burgdoff, Patty’s mother, said she couldn’t drive that stretch of road in front of the restaurant for a long time. But the more she drove it, the more it “helped me cope with her death and helps me accept what had happened.”
Her daughter’s tragic death is “what happens because of drinking and driving and speeding,” she said.
The memorial is a comfort, Cynthia said.
“It’s there just to remind people about what could happen to someone’s family with drinking and driving, and it was actually two families,” she said.
“Patty was a lovable, caring child when this happened and that is what I will always remember her as,” Cynthia said.
There’s a void in her life without Patty’s smile or her laugh, but she believes Patty’s spirit is watching over the family.
Just beyond a service road that empties onto Woodleaf Road lies what might look like a pile of debris to the average passing motorist. But to a number of Salisburians, the seemingly discarded fragments are part of memories from a life cut short.
The items — teddy bears, pictures, candles, remnants of balloons and a high heel shoe — are all there to honor Jatara Moore, the 22-year-old victim of a May traffic accident.
Moore, of Salisbury, her 4-year-old son and two other passengers were inside a Honda Accord on Woodleaf Road, off West Jake Alexander Boulevard, when the wreck happened.
The driver, Amber Pruitt, was charged with misdemeanor death by vehicle. She traveled off the road to the right, over-corrected, skidded across the roadway and into the path of an oncoming vehicle in the opposite lane.
Moore sustained serious injuries and died at the scene. Her son sustained a concussion and a bruised hip. All other passengers survived the crash.
The driver and a passenger in a sport utility vehicle which struck the Honda were taken to the hospital.
Two nights after the collision friends gathered near the crash site to place mementos that reminded them of Moore, including a high heel and pictures, but also left balloons and other items.
Moore’s mother, Carlandra, said it’s too painful for her to visit the place where her daughter died.
Although she can’t bear visiting the roadside memorial, she does hope it serves as a constant reminder to teens getting their license and driving for the first time.
“I want the younger generation to slow down. The girl was driving too fast and over-corrected. It was an accident,” Carlandra said.
Moore said her daughter was a great person and a great mom.
“She was a very funny girl,” she said.
Her grandson, Carlandra said, remembers everything about the crash.
“He’s going through some things,” she said.
Jatara’s best friend, Casey Graham, also remembers a young woman who was funny and friendly.
The two girls met as seventh graders in gym class at Knox Middle School.
“This one day, we both got into trouble for not tucking in our shirts, and we met in detention,” Graham said, laughing.
Since middle school, the two were inseparable and regularly talked by phone and messaged each other through texts.
“She was a bright person,” Graham said.
She said Jatara always made others laugh. She was friendly and loved wearing high heels.
The crash was nearly four months ago, but Graham still is in disbelief. She expects to go to Moore’s home or receive a text from her.
“Sometimes I walk past her room …” Graham said, then trailed off.
She misses her best friend terribly, but hopes the memorial will remind others, especially drivers, of the dangers of inattention.
Graham said the driver in the crash that killed Moore was on the phone, not paying attention. She hopes people will see the memorial and think twice about speeding, about wearing their seat belts, traveling slow in the curve at Woodleaf Road or driving cautiously at night.
“It’s difficult to drive in that area,” Graham said.
Julie Keels was always very artistic and even found a love for photography through her time at the N.C. School of the Arts, where she majored in film.
She was going to her first class of the day at Catawba College, where she’d finally settled on a major in business, when she was seriously injured in a March 2011 crash on Old Mocksville Road.
Keels, 28, had multiple injuries, mostly to her head, and several broken bones. She was taken to the hospital, but never regained consciousness.
Keels lost control of her car, it overturned and she was thrown from it, breaking a utility pole in the process.
Phyllis Keels, Julie’s mother, had been out that day and had returned home. The phone rang, but she didn’t immediately answer it. Phyllis said she saw that the caller ID said Rowan Regional, but she thought the call was for solicitation of some service or about a bill.
The phone rang and again it was the hospital. She decided to answer it this time.
“Do you have a daughter named Julie?” a nurse asked.
In the next moment, Phyllis said, her world stopped at the words “she’s been in a wreck.”
Phyllis’ brother drove her to the hospital. After some time in the hospital, doctors told Phyllis that Julie had brain damage on the right side.
“They said if she came out of it, she’d have a long road,” Phyllis said.
There was no activity, and doctors believed Julie had a possible stroke.
The family decided to remove Julie from life support.
“She was one of the smartest people I knew. She was beautiful inside and out and imperfect just like the rest of us,” Phyllis said.
She believes Julie’s “life was just as long as it was supposed to be.”
Almost immediately after her death, Alan, Julie’s younger brother who was 23 at the time, wanted to create a cross memorial.
He didn’t want to buy something, but instead he and a friend designed and built a wooden cross over the course of several weeks. The cross was made of oak and stood at 4 feet tall.
Phyllis said while working on the memorial, Alan seemed more “peaceful” and a little happier.
“It gave him something to do, and that was wonderful,” she said.
“You gotta do what you gotta do at that moment to get through. If it means putting a memorial at that place, you’ve got to do it,” Phyllis said.
The wooden cross remained in place for two years, but after that time the Keels decided it was time to take it down.
The cross sat in someone’s front yard where the crash occurred.
“It hurts if you see it there and it hurts if you don’t — when you see it you remember everything,” Phyllis said.
Part of the reason the family decided it was time to remove the memorial was because they felt others were reminded of the tragedy as well and “we left it up for what we thought was an appropriate time,” she said.
Phyllis said the Lord carried her through the loss of her daughter and that was how she was able to cope and continues to cope with her daughter’s death.
“I don’t believe anybody is strong enough to get through this without help,” Phyllis said.
She’s also shared her feelings about her daughter’s death through her online blog, “The Gifted Writer.”
Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.