Vickroy: Band dads honor student’s memory with scholarship
By Donna Vickroy email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy September 27, 2013 9:28PM
Debbie Puckett sits with Mike Puckett as she holds a photo of their daughter Amanda, who collapsed and died in her dorm room last month at Millikin University. | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 30, 2013 6:44AM
Amanda Puckett learned to play the violin before she learned to read.
She was just 4 when her mother started taking her to her older brothers’ music lessons at a store in Orland Park.
“She’d see the violins and beg to play one,” Debbie Puckett said. So Debbie let her. As she got older, Amanda switched to the clarinet so she could play in the school band.
“Music was in her blood,” Debbie said. “It made her happy; it was her life.”
In fact, just hours before she collapsed and died in her dorm room at Millikin University in Decatur on Aug. 25, the sophomore who had her sights set on one day playing with a symphony orchestra had attended a late-night practice in preparation for an audition the next morning.
Debbie said, “She took her auditions very seriously.”
The 19-year-old from Orland Hills took her music the same way. Debbie said her oldest daughter would practice on her clarinet for hours on end.
“We never had to remind her,” Debbie said, “but we would have to leave the room. She always wanted to be alone when she practiced.”
While the family awaits tests results to determine a cause of death, efforts to deal with the loss become more sobering each day.
“This is so horrible,” Debbie said. “I miss her so much. We talked every single day.”
At Andrew High School in Tinley Park, Amanda played in the band all four years. She served as a section leader and graduated with the coveted John Philip Sousa award. She was also a member of the orchestra and choir.
Her love for music earned her the respect of those in the music community, but it was her love for life that endeared her to just about everyone she met. Teachers who never even had her in their classes at Fernway Elementary School in Orland Park came to her wake.
“She was the sweetest and happiest person I have ever known,” said Larissa Olewinski, Amanda’s band “mom” at Andrew. “She was so kind and was always laughing. The warmth of her smile was contagious.”
Larissa’s younger sister, Cassie, was friends with Amanda. She recalled how the girls would stay up late at band camp and tell jokes and laugh.
“Amanda was always smiling, no matter what,” Cassie said.
Longtime friend Christopher Krakow also recalled her smile.
“She was always kind,” he said.
No surprise to anyone, sometime in high school, Amanda was given the nickname “Smiley.”
It is in that spirit that a scholarship is being named for Amanda.
When they heard of Amanda’s death, a group of longtime band dads — fathers who typically build sets, move equipment and chaperone at camp — did what they do best: jumped into action.
Tony Serratore sent an email out to the other dads. Fred Sansone started collecting money.
So far they have $1,200. They’re hoping that as word spreads they will be able to collect enough to award two scholarships in the spring and maybe make the awards an annual thing.
“These kids are all our kids,” Sansone said. “The reason we got involved in the first place is because we care about these kids.”
Sansone, who served with Debbie Puckett on the board of the band parents’ organization, recalled how Debbie often brought her two daughters to meetings and events.
“I used to tease them all the time,” he said.
Amanda’s father, Mike Puckett, a pipefitter, was one of the charter band dads.
“These guys would do anything to help these kids or the music program,” Mike said.
Consolidated High School District 230 Supt. James Gay said, “A scholarship is a great way to honor her memory and to honor all those who truly love music.”
Andrew Principal Bob Nolting said though logistics are still being worked out, the scholarships will likely be presented to a male and a female student who share Amanda’s love for music and embody her positive attitude.
“Memorial scholarships keep the spirit of the student alive,” Nolting said.
More than anything, Mike Puckett said, “We want people to remember her.”
Amanda was a gentle soul who loved Harry Potter, anime, “The Mortal Instruments” series and dining at Noodles & Co. Her favorite color was rainbow because she simply couldn’t choose just one, her sister Maddie said.
Amanda also loved Disney movies, particularly “Tarzan.”
“She watched it on every family vacation and on every trip back and forth to Millikin,” Mike said. “She watched it the day before she died.”
Debbie’s brother, Jeff Hermann, and his partner, Darren Webb, work for DreamWorks. When they came in for the service, Jeff chose “You’ll Be In My Heart” — from the “Tarzan” movie — to be the soundtrack for Amanda’s photo slideshow displayed at the wake.
After they returned to California, Darren sent some emails. Soon after, the Pucketts received condolences from the movie’s producer as well as from artist Phil Collins.
At Millikin, Amanda was on schedule to become first chair. Now, her second chair is empty and will remain so throughout the semester — something the other students insisted upon, Debbie was told.
Looking back, Debbie said, the summer with Amanda was a blessing.
“She wasn’t able to find a job,” Debbie said. “And I was OK with that. I was happy that she just got to do things with her family.”
She went to Ravinia with her brothers, Mike and Tim, and to the movies countless times with Maddie, a sophomore at Andrew.
“The girls did everything together,” Debbie said. “They shared a bedroom, shared clothes, shared (a love for) Tumblr.”
Amanda and Maddie also made plans. One day, they’d open a store together and call it Sister Sister.
More than anything, the Pucketts say, they want people to remember how their daughter was able to find the silver lining in everything.
Even now, the Pucketts believe Amanda is still with them, pointing out positives in this, the bleakest of times.
“Amanda would be so honored to see the effect she has had on people,” Debbie said. The hundreds of cards that were sent, the hundreds of people who came to her wake, the candlelight vigil held at Millikin on the very day she died — a crazy, chaotic day on which students were just moving into their dorms.
“And now, the scholarship,” Debbie said. “I just know she would be happy that other students will be honored in her name.”
For more information on the scholarship, or to make a donation, contact Tony Serratore at (708) 532-5234.