Memorial to tragedy brings lesson to the living
CHAMPAIGN — Since he was 10 years old, Caleb Roch knew he wanted to be a cop.
Besides the Cubs and playing baseball, police work was the passion of the 2006 Centennial High School graduate.
By 20, he had part-time jobs as a security guard at Market Place Mall and a dispatcher for the Parkland College Police Department.
He rode along with Champaign police and helped them with undercover alcohol stings. He even successfully used CPR on a baby who wasn't breathing at the mall.
He did all those things while studying criminal justice at Parkland College.
"He really had a great resume going," said his proud mother, Sheila Walters of Champaign.
Caleb's budding career was cut short on June 18, 2008, when his motorcycle collided with a semitrailer tractor truck that was about to turn into a business in Interstate Research Park in northwest Champaign.
The helmeted rider died from traumatic internal injuries.
Little did he know that his public service would carry on years later in more ways than one.
At the T-intersection of Interstate and Newmark drives, just across from the Army Corps of Engineers Research Lab on Interstate Drive in Champaign, is a white cross. About 2 feet tall, it's wrapped with a vine of pastel Easter eggs. Tacked on the front is a plastic-covered 8-by-10 photo of a smiling, slightly red-faced Caleb Roch, wearing an Illini baseball cap backwards. There is no writing on the cross, other than the label on the back saying it came from Hobby Lobby.
It's planted on a grassy area just feet from where Caleb drew his last breath.
"I couldn't go by there for the longest time," Sheila Walters said.
It was Caleb's girlfriend and his older sister, Chelsea Roch, who had the idea to put a memorial at the accident site a few weeks after his death.
Sheila Walters said they started with the cross and a few flowers but decided later to add Caleb's picture so people would know "he was a person, not a statistic."
"When you lose anyone, part of honoring their life seems to me that you don't want people to forget them. I want people to know and understand that death ends a life but it doesn't end a relationship. He still is my son. He doesn't stop being my son or Chelsea's brother."
So for almost six years, Sheila and her husband, Terry Walters, have maintained the memorial, changing it up for the season, even digging it out of the snow this past brutal winter.
"We've put lights on it at Christmas and greenery. My kids tell me I can get a little gaudy," Sheila said with a laugh.
It's been noticed.
'I've used that story'
Ed Wachala likes to go to Menards — a lot. So he heads north on Mattis from his west Champaign home and cuts across Interstate Drive to the east to get to his favorite store, going past the memorial.
"I see it five to six times a week. I knew this kid," he said.
Wachala has been a Champaign police officer for 17 years, working the last eight years as the school resource officer at Centennial. Before that, he taught the DARE program in Champaign schools for five years. He's familiar with adolescent minds. He's also a dad.
He had known Caleb for about six years, having been his baseball coach at Centennial. He was also his mentor at the police department.
"He wanted to be a cop. We talked a lot about it. He was involved in our youth police academy. He helped us as an assistant. We teach and the kids help as role players. We spent a lot of time practicing traffic stops. He was just a super kid, hard-working, always had a smile on his face," Wachala said.
Sheila Walters said her son's young-looking face made him a perfect candidate to try to buy alcohol in underage sales stings.
It was Wachala who had the unenviable task of knocking on the Walters' door the morning of the accident. Colleagues reckoned such horrible news would be better delivered by a familiar face.
"I took them to the hospital. I would have been a basket case had it been my child. They immediately went to their faith," he said, marveling at the reaction of the Walterses to their son's death.
Their positivity during his visitation and funeral, which featured officers as pall bearers and a police escort, was "heroic," Wachala observed.
"They are just terrific parents," he said.
Having known Caleb and the pain his family has endured, Wachala uses what happened to him in his work.
"I try to find other means than writing a kid a ticket for a first or second offense like speeding or texting. I give them a choice. 'I can write you a ticket and call your parents or you can go to the memorial, pull off to the side of the road, get out and look at that memorial. Sit there and think about it a minute. Come back tomorrow and report to me what you saw and tell me how it's decorated so I know you saw it and tell me how do you feel.'"
If they choose the memorial, he rips up the ticket.
"Virtually every kid I sent out there has said, 'Yeah, this got to me.'"
Wachala estimates he's sent a dozen young drivers, mostly males, to Interstate Drive but "I couldn't tell you the number of times I've used that story."
This spring, Wachala sent a letter to the Walterses and to The News-Gazette, recounting how Caleb's story affects him.
'I am not invincible'
Reed Reinier listened.
Driving erratically in the parking lot at Centennial, the 18-year-old senior got Wachala's attention. It was about a year ago when Wachala pulled him out of class, brought him to the office, took his driver's license and talked to him about the risky behavior. He also called Reinier's parents, as he does for any young person he pulls over.
"We got to talking and he told me about what happened," Reinier said.
Reinier welcomed the chance to avoid a ticket by visiting Caleb's memorial.
"I went right after school. I got out and looked at it and just sat there and thought about what happened and what he had told me. It was right on that road. The thing was (Wachala) had told him to slow down. Two weeks before he died, he told him he'd end up killing himself if he kept riding like that. Two weeks later he had died. He said that could happen to me and I'm not invincible," Reinier said. "It set your mind straight."
Reinier's life lesson included turning over his car keys to his parents for about three months and taking the bus, the ultimate punishment for many teens.
He has told a couple of friends Caleb's story. And he is grateful to Wachala for having shared it.
"I was sad but I was glad. I didn't think he cared that much about me but ... it's hard to explain," Reinier said.
'Excited as the dickens'
It wasn't until about 10 days ago that Sheila and Terry Walters knew how Wachala was using their experience to help other young people.
Having donated Caleb's corneas for transplant, they are vocal advocates for organ donations and have graciously shared their tragic story with many in an effort to get others to consider organ donation at a time of crisis.
They have even forged a wonderful relationship with the suburban Chicago woman who received one of Caleb's corneas in 2008. They didn't meet her until 2012 and when they did, "She broke the ice with: 'It's the right eye,'" Sheila Walters laughed.
Still, as time marches on, they wonder if others remember their son.
And then Wachala's letter arrived, explaining what the memorial means to him. He even thanked the surrounding businesses that have allowed it to remain.
Sheila Walters said she changed jobs Jan. 1 and now works at Provena Home Care, "which is the very next driveway on Interstate (from the cross). I had to think about that."
The letter was just the boost they needed.
"Just last week, I was sad and tearful, saying to Terry, 'Other people go on with their lives.' For us, this is still our life. It will always be a part of that. It was that sense of everyone having moved on. When we got that letter, I was just toast. I didn't know he (Wachala) had those feelings," Sheila Walters said.
"Our son was quite a gregarious type of character," Terry Walters said. "For him to be able to serve such a legacy, he'd be excited as the dickens. Whether it was going to alcohol stings with police, he enjoyed being out with people and the excitement of the teaching moment. He would love it.
"For us, it is that continuation of our son being able to cause others to think about what they are doing. How safe am I making myself?"
"We joined that lost child club, the club we would never want anyone to join," said Terry Walters. "If his picture, his memorial, can keep even one kid's parents from having to join that lost child club, we are thrilled."