Jim Dey: Memory lingers on a lonely stretch of road
Monday is Memorial Day. But every day is a day of memorial for individuals grieving over lost family members, loved ones or friends, and they find different ways to cope with and express their grief.
One most public expression is located on Champaign's Duncan Road, just south of the Meadowbrook Community Church at 1902 Duncan Road. Hundreds of motorists traverse that section in southwest Champaign each day, perhaps passing by without notice.
If they take a sidelong glance to the east, they'd see a metal cross adorned with decorations in memory of Jonathan R. McDougal. His family members haven't forgotten him, and they don't want others to forget him either.
Jenny Smith, McDougal's sister, and Kayla Frichtl, his fiancee, established the memorial near the spot where their brother and husband-to-be, respectively, was struck and fatally injured by a car about 11:30 p.m. Feb. 3, 2011.
Smith, who's 33 and lives in Champaign, said the memorial serves two purposes — to let passers-by know that a tragedy occurred there and "that person is loved, that person is missed," as well as to provide a personal connection for those who cared about him.
"I do frequent the cross," she said. "For me, it's being able to go there and have a moment with him."
Frichtl, who's 27 and also lives in Champaign, said she, too, visits, but not as frequently as she once did, because the memory is too painful.
Other people also stop by. The two women said they've appreciated strangers who've acknowledged their grief.
"There have been a couple of different cards left there. There have been flowers left there. We don't know who they were left by," said Frichtl, who works two jobs and attends Parkland College.
Who was Jon McDougal? He was a graduate of Centennial High School who worked as a surgical assistant for an oral surgeon. At 29 and just entering the prime of life, he was a son, father, fiance and brother who possessed a winning nature.
"He could make best friends with a stranger," said Frichtl, who said McDougal loved sports, music and his daughter, Peyton, who is now 7.
Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup remembers this case in particular because the facts were so confusing, it was hard to determine exactly what happened.
As is often the case in accidental deaths, the root cause lay in excessive alcohol consumption.
Police reports indicated that McDougal, a patron at Jupiter's at the Crossing that evening, drank too much to drive. When a friend took his car keys, Northrup said, McDougal decided to walk home.
It was a cold evening and the streets and sidewalks were covered with snow, leaving McDougal with little room to negotiate his way as he walked along Duncan Road.
The coroner's office determined that McDougal's death was accidental.
"The driver who hit him stated that ... he was unable to stop," according to Champaign police reports.
Northrup said there was some suspicion that McDougal also may have been struck by a second vehicle.
"It was a very confusing investigation," he recalled.
A Champaign patrol officer reported that McDougal was conscious at the hospital and that he spoke briefly with him.
"I was drinking a lot," the officer quoted McDougal as saying.
McDougal spent 13 days in Carle Foundation Hospital's intensive care unit, sometimes rallying and sometimes fading. Smith and Frichtl report that friends from the Vineyard Church visited the hospital to pray for his recovery, but it was not to be. McDougal died on Feb. 15, 2011.
"He will be truly missed for his boundless love of family, friends, life, encouragement and determination," McDougal's obituary stated.
Because he was cremated, there is no burial site to visit. So Smith and Frichtl put a small cross on the side of the road. When it was removed by persons unknown, they put another in its place. When that was removed — vandalized essentially — they put in another.
Finally, one of their friends inserted a metal cross in the ground, and there it stayed. Since then, family and friends have decorated the memorial with pictures, writings and ornaments, particularly on special days, like Christmas, Easter and his date of death.
"Forever Missed," reads one.
"You were a wonderful father. Peyton misses you so much," reads another.
Smith said her mother, Sandy McDougal of Georgetown, finds it too painful to visit the memorial often, but enthusiastically makes decorations for it.
"If she could make something that would go all the way to heaven, she would," Smith said of her mother.
It's been more than two years since McDougal died, and both women said the passage of time has helped ease some of their pain. But, they said, out of the blue, someone or something will suddenly remind them of their loss.
"It's difficult," said Smith.
Ironically, both said there have been some positives. Frichtl said she's learn to overlook minor issues and keep her eye on the big picture.
"I don't take anyone or anything for granted. ... because you never know when your time is up or your loved one's time is up," she said.
Smith recalled that seeing how quickly life can change has made her more adventurous about experiencing new things, whether it's riding on a jet ski or trying a different kind of food.
"I found out crab cakes are great, jet skiing is great," she said.
Mostly though, they try to fill the void by remembering what McDougal meant to them and others, and they see the spontaneous memorial they built on Duncan as one way to keep him alive in their hearts.
"We want to remember Jon for the person he was," Frichtl said.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at email@example.com or at 351-5369.