A Creative Grief:

Community endows scholarship after death of Tech freshman

by Su Clauson-Wicker

If rainbows could spread across the human face, Temple Fox, smiling through her tears, would be multicolored right now.

She's in the break room of NationsBank's Orange, Va. office where she works as a teller, as she reminisces about her son, a former Virginia Tech freshman. Austin Fox died of meningitis just before spring break last year.

"He was a friend to everyone and a kid we could trust. He never failed to thank us for anything we did for him. He was, well -- wonderful," she says. "We couldn't have put an order in for a better kid. We were lucky to have Austin for 18 and a half years. I thank God for that."

Temple and her husband Elliott still don't understand why their healthy, active teenager had to die suddenly from a disease that struck no one else on the Tech campus.

But in the year since his death, the Foxes and their community worked hard to create something positive out of this painful event. The Austin E. Fox Scholarship to Virginia Tech began with friends' donations after the funeral and, as the community sought a positive outlet for their grief, exceeded all expectations by reaching endowment level before the anniversary of Austin's death.

Just as firemen's medals, photos of friends' babies, Tech paraphernalia, and other mementos continue to accumulate on Austin's grave, the lasting memorial for him grows. Customers stop by Temple's drive-in window at NationsBank and say, "Cash this check, please, and take out $10 for Austin."

"This scholarship has grown of love," says Allie Sanford, Austin's choir director and family friend, who with her husband, made the first contribution.

"Losing Austin was a heartbreak. There's a big hole in me still. When you lose somebody like Austin, you need another focus," says Mace Sanford, Allie's husband. Mace conceived of the idea of a Virginia Tech scholarship while driving to North Carolina to get Austin's grandmother for the funeral.

"I'd like to see Austin's qualities of community service, scholarship, responsibility, and caring for others to be recognized in this scholarship," Sanford says. "I want other kids to emulate him, to strive to have his qualities. We'd like the world to be better because Austin lived."

Working on the scholarship in their son's memory let Elliott and Temple Fox focus on something positive during their grief.

The Foxes' church, Mount Zion Methodist, threw in its support. "If you had to put your finger on any one thing that draws this church together, it's music," says Max Lacy, bass in the church quartet. Lacy coordinated a weekend of gospel concerts; singing favorite hymns such as "Why Me?" "The King is Coming," and "I'll See You in the Rapture," they raised $3,000 and packed two local churches to the point where people were sitting in the aisles. Lacy is planning another Austin Fox fund raiser in October.

The Foxes were handed some large checks, but many donations came in small denominations. Teacher Jimmy Kestner's drafting class at Orange High School raised funds for the memorial to their former classmate. Some, including Austin's 17-year-old cousin Eddie, contribute a sum from each paycheck they receive from their part-time jobs. Others make scholarship gifts on Christmas, Easter, or other holidays.

Temple Fox's boss, Julie Sprinkel, did some research and found that NationsBank will put in up to $2,000 each year to match the contributions the Foxes raise for the scholarship.

"Working on the scholarship kept us busy last year and let us focus on a positive when there was not much to look forward to," says Elliott Fox. We believe that the scholarship will allow others to benefit from his memory."

"There has been an outpouring of friendship," says Mount Zion minister, the Rev. Lynn Wilburn. "Young people still go out to visit his grave between church and Sunday school. They say that their lives are better for having been touched by his." On the anniversary of Austin's death, Feb. 27, Temple distributed 50 purple ribbons clasped with an angel pin to people who had been connected with him.

Before the morning was over, she realized she should have made up three times as many ribbons. Then she and Elliott drove down to Blacksburg to walk across the campus and remember their son. "He loved Tech," Elliott says. "As soon as Austin saw campus, he said, "This is where I'm going,' even though another college had offered him a place on the baseball team."
Gospel singer Max Lacy has been coordinating concerts to raise funds for the Austin E. Fox Scholarship.

Austin Fox grew up in Orange, a town of about 3,800 where churches outnumber eateries and the meeting house for the nation's oldest Boy Scout troop stands in the lot between his mom's office and Bell Atlantic's central office, where his dad works as a technician. Austin played baseball, served as secretary in his church youth group, raised funds for Habitat for Humanity, and volunteered with the town fire department. He is remembered as an unusually warm-hearted young man.

Bennie Moubray, a neighbor in his 60s, recalls how Austin would visit him after school when Moubray was being treated for cancer. "We'd talk for an hour or so, usually about sports," says Moubray. "I was partial to UVA, and when he decided to go to Tech, he brought me and my wife Tech mugs filled with candy. I told him I'd drink out of mine every day except when UVA was playing -- and I still do. That boy was like a son to me. We used to send him a little money for special occasions like Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Valentine's Day. Now we put the money in his scholarship fund."

Andy Hromyak Jr. (physical education '73), Austin's assistant baseball coach, dabs at his eyes when talking about Austin. "He was what they all should be like -- diligent, dependable, always smiling. He was a person who led by example."

Head coach Lindsay Woolfolk says the Orange High baseball team dedicated their 1997 season to Austin.

At Tech, Austin roomed with Jerry Atkins, a friend since kindergarten. "Austin was a nice guy -- that's the first thing you noticed," Jerry says. "He'd do anything for anybody. I never heard him say anything mean about anybody. He just didn't have any meanness in him."

After Austin died, Jerry fulfilled a dream of becoming a bull rider in regional rodeos on weekends. "I always think of him before I get on the bull," Jerry says. "I kind of say, 'Ride with me.'"

Jerry and Austin's parents were with Austin as he lay dying in the Blacksburg hospital. "Get these needles out of me. I want to go home," he told Jerry. When Jerry told him they were trying to get him well enough to go home to Orange, Austin replied, "No, I'm dying." "How do you feel about that?" Jerry asked him. "Fine, I'm going home," Austin said. He died a few hours later.

Friends of the Foxes marvel that the couple has never been bitter over the loss of their only son. "We didn't question God when He gave us Austin; we don't ask why he took him away," Temple says. "But it hurts. We miss him. We don't understand, but we know God must have a special plan for Austin."

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