Gina Tagnani and Bill Bason were finalists for the first Jon Outt Memorial Scholarship.
Each had known Jon Outt. Each had sat near Jon in classes. Each had studied with him and laughed with him and scarfed down slices of pizza with him. Each had worked with Jon on the college newspaper. And each had cried with me and the rest of Jon’s classmates when we heard Jon had been killed in a car crash.
This was 26 years ago. I had returned to my office at Luzerne County Community College one day the previous fall to a phone message from a colleague expressing condolences regarding my “student who had died over the weekend.” I had heard nothing of this, and since I don’t always take roll, I quickly tried to recall which student had not been there an hour before. There was only one. Jon Outt.
Jon was what is known as a non-traditional student. He was 21 years old when he enrolled at LCCC. He had grown up in Millville, where he was a standout athlete, and had moved to Wilkes-Barre and was working at Sears when he decided he wanted more out of life. He began to pursue a degree in journalism. Had he lived, Jon surely would have made it as a sportswriter or sports broadcaster. He had all the makings. Brains, looks, stature and a boyish charm underscored by a quiet, humble demeanor.
Jon spent that fateful weekend at home in Millville. The police report said he swerved to miss a deer on a country road. Jon was driving alone. There was no alcohol involved. That wasn’t Jon’s style. He did not drink or use drugs. If ever there were an All- American boy, he was it.
The students were devastated at the news. I had been teaching just over a year and didn’t know I was probably breaking a lot of rules when I piled as many kids as I could into my car and went off looking for Jon’s home in Millville. This was pre-GPS by a couple of decades, but we managed to reach our destination, and found a grieving family who welcomed us with open arms. When Jon’s dad walked me to the car after our visit he said the arrival of the students was just what they needed. Talking with all these young people upon whom Jon left an indelible impression had helped ease their pain.
The family established the Jon Outt Memorial Scholarship the following spring.
The scholarship has been awarded to a journalism student ever since. Each year at the LCCC scholarship dinner, where the Outts meet the latest recipient, I ask them if the experience hurts, if it’s tantamount to ripping a scab off an old wound. Quite the opposite, they say. In each recipient, they see Jon. Hearing of their dreams, they recall his.
That’s why selecting the perfect recipient is so important. And why choosing between Gina and Bill for the initial award was so difficult. Each was an ideal candidate.
The committee eventually decided upon Bill. It was my pleasure to inform him. But it also fell to me to break the news to Gina.
And that’s why I am telling this story today as we enter the month of December and our thoughts turn to Christmas.
Of course Gina was disappointed, but her disappointment paled in comparison to how happy she was for Bill. Genuinely happy, too. She wasn’t merely doing the right thing, keeping a stiff upper lip. Her joy was real.
I could not help but ask her about it.
She told me she had grown up in a family with several children of which she was the oldest. Money was always tight, she said, and when she was 12 years old, her mother sat her down before Christmas and told her on Christmas morning there would be no presents for her under the tree. There was barely enough money to buy gifts for her little brothers and sisters.
Gina said she cried herself to sleep that night but woke up the next day and decided she could have a miserable Christmas, or she could be excited and happy for her siblings and share in their joy. She chose the latter. And that attitude became part of her.
Gina’s goal in life was to marry her high school sweetheart Brian Schwartz, which she did, have babies, which she did (three), and return to teach at Luzerne County Community College, which she has. My former student became my teaching colleague.
About 17 years ago, I ran into Gina at a pizza place near the college in Nanticoke. She had her little boy with her. Zack was perhaps 3 at the time. It was a couple of weeks before Christmas, so I got down on one knee and said, “What a big boy you are, Zack. What’s Santa going to bring you for Christmas?”
“Nothing,” he said, “if I don’t go poopy on the potty.”
I never did find out how that turned out, but I was pretty sure Gina was not about to follow through on that threat.
Zack, who probably wishes I would forget this story, is now 20 and a senior at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute majoring in Video Game Narrative Design. His brother, Peyton, is a freshman at LCCC heading to Pennsylvania College of Technology to study Industrial Design. Their sister, Samy, is 14. I understand she spends her time dancing, cheering, playing basketball, running track and making the honor roll.
It’s a pretty safe bet all three will have plenty of presents Christmas morning. And Gina will revel in watching all three open them. She’s good at that.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.