As the holiday season descends and doors close for a deserved pause, a friendly and welcoming essence remains infused in the schools of higher learning.
Stephen Chandler Ericson never matriculated at one of the universities, colleges and trade schools that welcomes students receiving his namesake scholarship, but his mother, Laura Ericson, is convinced a little bit of her son’s spirit travels with each student.
The 54th anniversary of Stephen’s birth was Aug. 24. His life was taken just weeks after his 16th birthday on Sept. 19, 1984. A bolt of lightning, seemingly came out of nowhere to strike the West Chester Christian School’s soccer field where Stephen was playing and caused fatal injuries.
Stephen’s family — parents Joe and Laura and sisters Cynthia and Jennifer — mourned his loss. The family has dedicated themselves to keeping the spirit of the young man — dubbed by his father as “ornery good” — alive to benefit not only aspiring students but also families that have lost beloved family members too early in life.
Laura believes her son was an “old soul” and a peaceful person. Stephen had lots of friends, indeed he liked the social aspect of school more than the academics, she recalled. “He was a bright child,” Laura commented. “He excelled in sports. Besides soccer, he loved to pitch in baseball games, and he enjoyed swimming, golf, and basketball. Swimming at Roslyn Swim Club (RSC) was extra special for Stephen, and since 1985, RSC has awarded The Stephen Chandler Ericson Dedicated Swimmer Award annually.”
Stephen’s energy seemed to be boundless. “He worked so hard at everything. He liked to garden and we grew vegetables in the yard. We were mostly successful,” Laura said. “He designed a plan for the yard just before he died. After his death I had a landscaper execute his plans. The landscaper wanted to make changes to the design but I insisted Stephen’s plan be exactly followed.”
The summer he died, Stephen began a grass mowing business with his best friend, Jeff Bott. Stephen was determined to earn money for items he wanted but didn’t want to ask his parents to purchase. Some of the items on his wish list were for his beloved dog, Kelly
Joe wrote of his son, “Our Steve was not perfect, but in our eyes he was ‘special.’ He was a happy child, a happy boy, and a happy young man. Steve was a natural athlete and seemed to do most things well. He made friends easily and enjoyed any physical activity. We were throwing a ball around almost from the beginning.”
Stephen’s old soul was filled with kindness. After a culprit who had stolen Stephen’s bicycle was apprehended, a police officer asked father Joe Ericson if he wanted to prosecute the young offender. Stephen was in the room and offered his suggested punishment. Stephen wanted the offender to be taken to church every Sunday by his father. “Maybe he will find the Lord,” Laura recalled her son saying. “The police officer gave Stephen a big hug and said the suggestion was wonderful.” When the officer said the offender couldn’t be forced to go to church, Laura recalled her son questioning the law when it could force a person to go to jail but not church.
Friends of Stephen also benefitted from his compassion. A neighbor family had constructed a tent for their son and were outraged when evidence was discovered that Stephen had torn down the tent. Stephen wouldn’t disclose why he did the act and silently suffered his punishment. Not until much later did Laura discover that Stephen attempted to stop his friend from smoking on several occasions. “You’ll never become an athlete by smoking,” Stephen warned. The friend was using the tent to shield the smoking from his parents. When the friend wouldn’t heed Stephen’s warnings, Stephen took down the tent. Stephen didn’t tell on his friend’s smoking habit.
Laura smiled, fondly recalling a shopping trip to a local mall for school shoes. As the mother and son were exiting, a father and daughter, who had physical deformities, past them. The four shoppers exchanged smiles. Stephen’s comment to his mother on the encounter, “She had a wonderful smile. I hope everyone in the mall notices that smile.”
With all of his spirit and kindness, Stephen, who was adopted when he was a few weeks old, had self-doubts. They called him the “Chosen One.” Stephen once asked Laura if he was ugly as a child and if that was why he was unwanted. Laura replied, “Oh, Stephen, you were and are beautiful, and you are wanted and needed more than words could ever express.” Laura recalled tucking her three children in for the night. At times, Laura said, Stephen would ask her to return and talk some more about life.
Laura believes several comments Stephen made before his death indicated he had a strong premonition that he wouldn’t live too long into the future. During one conversation, Laura remarked that one day Stephen would make a great dad, just like her husband Joe. “Stephen said he would never live long enough to become a father.” The remark troubled Laura but Laura and Joe dismissed the comment as just “talk” by a youngster.
During Stephen’s 16th birthday celebration, Laura told Stephen she would take him to secure his driver’s learning permit the next day. Stephen told her not to bother, he wasn’t ever going to drive. The comment was made just weeks before his death.
A third incident took place during a visit to see Laura’s mother. Stephen rode in the passenger’s seat and kept sticking his head out of the window and looking skyward. When Laura asked what he was looking for in the sky, Stephen didn’t answer. After the visit, Stephen asked Laura to delay their departure. Stephen exited the car and went back to his grandmother’s house. Laura and her mother both thought Stephen had forgotten an item. “Stephen just said he wanted one last hug and kiss from his grandmother. It was,” Laura said.
On the day Stephen died, a Friday, the family gathered for breakfast. His parents planned to attend his soccer game but Laura had a throat infection and Stephen told her to stay home. Joe had a meeting but promised to get to the game as soon as possible.
Joe later wrote, “Steve was the only startling sophomore on the team, and we were proud of him. Rain was forecast for the game. My meeting lasted until 4:45, and I rushed to the school to catch the end of the game. It was starting to rain. I reached the school and took my umbrella and walked up to the field. I located Steve right away because he was small and fast. He was 5-foot-3 and weighed 105 pounds, small for a 16-year-old.
“I was not prepared for what happened next. A gigantic bolt of lightning struck the field right where my boy was running. It was so loud that you could hear it for miles around. I closed my eyes and when I opened them my boy was lying very still. I ran over and the coach started CPR for Steve. Steve was so still and not breathing. I knew then that my boy was hurt very badly. I started to cry because I began to think he wasn’t going to live. He was so still.”
The bolt was so strong spectators were knocked from the metal stands. The referee and Stephen’s teammates and opponents were knocked off their feet. The sound was heard miles away from the strike.
A rescue team arrived and managed to restart Stephen’s heart by the time they arrived at Chester County Hospital. Later, Stephen was taken to Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia. Because of the length of time Stephen’s heart had stopped beating, Stephen suffered profound brain damage. Laura joined Joe at the hospital and a rollercoaster of emotions began. At first, doctors didn’t think he would survive. At one point, the medical team believed Stephen could survive, but they weren’t sure of his future quality of life. Laura talked to Stephen in the hours after the hospitalization. She asked her son to squeeze her hand if he could hear her. He did and Stephen brought her hand to his chest. A nurse was alerted to the startling development and Stephen repeated the accomplishment. Laura knew Stephen’s response wasn’t a sign that Stephen was going to recover. Laura knew the Lord had given her a few more peaceful moments with Stephen before God took him home.
Stephen’s struggle for life became nationally known soon after the lightning strike. Laura recalled that Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry — Stephen was a Cowboys fan — had his team pray for Stephen during their weekend game.
Joe recalled the five days of hospitalization as a nightmare. “My wife and I have never known as much anguish as we felt that morning. I truly didn’t know if I would ever function again. Steve had accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior and, therefore, he will have everlasting life. He is safe and warm and he has his brain back. This fact has been the only thing that got me through the next hour – the next day.”
Stephen died on Wednesday, Sept. 19 at 6:03 PM. “I was holding him in my arms and my wife was holding his hand and kissing his cheek. The tragedy is the most devastating thing that has ever happened to us,” Joe wrote. Sisters Cynthia and Jennifer were in the room along with their grandmother and some of Stephen’s closest friends.
Laura said she and Joe clung together and grieved together after their son’s death. Laura recalled a question from one of the doctors that seemed strange to her at the time. After Joe was sent home from the hospital to receive some much-needed rest, a doctor asked Laura how strong was her marriage. The doctor warned her that 80 percent of marriages end in divorce after the sudden death of a child. The statistic surprised Laura, and she and Joe made it a point to minister to parents who have lost children.
Upon Stephen’s death, the Ericson family, immediately, looked for avenues to help others keep Stephen’s memory and spirit alive. The discussion began in the driveway of their home after Stephen’s death. Laura commented it took Joe time to overcome his anger over the loss of Stephen.
When their Pastor came to the Ericson home to discuss funeral arrangements, they decided not to solicit flowers and donations in Stephen’s memory. The money would be better used as a scholarship in Stephen’s name. The amount of the first year’s scholarship was $100. Only family and few close friends knew of the scholarships at first. Part of the funding came from the education money Laura and Joe set aside for Stephen.
Stephen’s funeral was held on Sept. 22 and the church was filled with an estimated 700 people attending. “What a tribute to our son,” Joe wrote.
The scholarship was made known at a “Tea and Crumpets” meeting. The “Tea and Crumpets” group was made up of six families of long-time, school friends of Laura. When asked why she hadn’t told anyone, Laura responded, “It was something that began with just our immediate and extended family so the thought of expanding the conversation to outside that world was daunting. It has been a growth process for our whole family, but we came to embrace the fact that the more people that knew about Stephen’s scholarship the more people that could support and spread the message that ‘One Life Makes a Difference.’”
Scholarships have been awarded every year since Stephen’s death and five of the years two scholarships were given. Beginning in 1985 through 2012, students from the West Chester Christian School received scholarships, and since 2012, the family has been working with West Chester Henderson High School. They wanted to include a public school, and Henderson was a perfect choice.
The night of Stephen’s death, Laura spent the whole night writing in her son’s room. Laura constantly wrote notes to her children and this night she wrote one to Stephen. “The Lord guided every word I wrote,” Laura recalled. When finished, she placed the note in Stephen’s Bible. Laura intended to keep the note private. She fell asleep in Stephen’s room. When Joe read Laura’s note to Stephen, he urged his wife to make it public. Laura wasn’t sure but as the beautiful letter was shared the support grew and a publisher in the congregation asked if he could publish it. At the publisher’s suggestion, Laura added a powerful message about death and Heaven.
Laura’s message has been printed and translated into many different languages and used by missionaries throughout the world. Laura and Joe spent decades talking about Stephen’s life and death and raising funds for his scholarship.
Laura and Joe worked many hours on keeping Stephen’s spirit alive. After several years, the mission was passed on to Stephen’s sister Cynthia and her husband, Gary Beideman. In 2010, The Stephen Chandler Ericson Foundation was created and is a part of the Chester County Community Foundation.
Besides financial support, Cynthia and Gary distribute the tract her mother had published about Stephen’s life and spirit. She gave one to an intern for her company who grew up in India. The young woman took the inspirational message home to share with her parents. The next day, the intern reported her father had been aware of Stephen as he had read the tract in India.
The Ericson family has witnessed how Stephen’s life has helped so many individuals across the globe.
Stephen’s fund is designed to help a student, each year, with their first year of college or trade school. The student is selected by the high school faculty. The criteria for selection are based on the student having a good Christian testimony, a sense of humor, being an average student, have a good school spirit, being active in sports, and, active in music. The goal is to help young people with their education and to inspire them to develop the mindset that we are all in this life together and that we must help one another, that indeed “one life makes a difference.” The Ericson family hopes the scholarship is the catalyst for a mind, heart, and soul that focuses upon what they can do for someone else, no matter how large or small the gesture.
On June 30, 2022, a $10,000 scholarship was awarded. The amount was the most given in a single scholarship. The recipient was Katherine Simpson, who is studying Elementary Education at Duquesne University. Upon receiving the scholarship, Katherine said, “I am so grateful to receive the Stephen Chandler Ericson Scholarship. As a future teacher, the motto ‘one life makes a difference’ really resonated with me. I hope to be able to use this motto as motivation to give my students every tool possible so that each one can make their own difference in this world.”
Thus, a bit of Stephen’s spirit will be in Pittsburgh this year as Katherine begins her studies.