HARVARD — The iconic boulder beside The Bromfield School was again turned into a memorial this week, with huge red letters proclaiming “Jessie” emblazoned over a freshly painted white background coating the rocky outcropping.
The newly adorned boulder has served as a natural meeting and reflection spot for classmates mourning the loss of one of their own. This time, the memorial was dedicated to Bromfield freshman Jessie Peterson, who was killed in a traumatic accident in town last weekend.
According to the Harvard Police Department, 14-year-old Jessica Lynn “Jessie” Peterson and her mother, 46-year-old Elizabeth “Betsy” Peterson, were working in the back yard of their East Bare Hill Road home on Saturday afternoon. The mother and daughter decided to take a break from their yard work by resting in a hammock slung between two trees.
What the two didn’t know is that the base of one of the hammock support trees had apparently rotted over the winter. The weakened tree broke off at the trunk and sent the top of the tree plunging onto the two when they sat on the hammock, seriously injuring both mother and daughter.
Harvard police recount that a neighbor reported hearing a female voice calling for help, at approximately 1:45 p.m. Saturday. The concerned neighbor flagged down a passing motorist to help her locate the source of the cries. Soon thereafter, Jessie and Betsy Peterson’s location was discovered in the backyard. A 911 call was made.
Harvard police, fire and ambulance personnel discovered Jessie lying unconscious and suffering from blunt force trauma to her head. Mother Betsy was found with serious injuries to her lower extremities. The tree was described as “measuring 2 feet in diameter and approximately 10 feet tall.”
A MedFlight helicopter from Hanscom Air Force Base landed on the elementary school grounds to transport Jessie to UMass Medical Center in Worcester. While Betsy was initially transported to Emerson Hospital in Concord, she was later taken to Worcester to be near her daughter.
Within hours of the accident, classmates gathered and text messages were flying, building a groundswell of support and texting words of hope for Jessie.
But Jessie succumbed to her injuries shortly before noon on Sunday.
On a Web site devoted to the tragedy, Betsy’s medical ordeal was summarized as follows on Tuesday night:
Betsy’s surgery (on Monday) was very successful. Instead of needing a plate to repair her pelvis, they were able to put in two pins and are anticipating a faster recovery for her. The hope is that soon she will be able to use crutches. Today she is recovering and has requested no visitors for the next couple of days.”
The Web site also offers, “The family is so touched by all the love that has been expressed by our community and the knowledge that Jessie touched so many.”
Word quickly spread through the town on Saturday regarding the Peterson injuries. Just hours after the accident, an impromptu service assembled on the town common, including many from the Congregational Church of Harvard whose pastor, the Rev. Gregory Schmidt, and the Rev. Dennis O’Brien of St. Theresa’s Church, jointly led a candlelight vigil Saturday night. Another gathering took place Sunday night at the pond.
Area businesses lent support to grieving teens on Sunday. A PTO e-mail newsletter thanked the Ayer Road businesses Art & Cloth Studio (owned by Bromfield art teacher Sharon Chandler with an assist from husband and Harvard schools chef Paul Correnty) for hosting teens and Sorrento’s Pizza next door for supplying food. The studio became one of several meeting places for students.
On Sunday night, the PTO sent an e-mail from Bromfield Principal James O’Shea, confirming the news that Jessie had died. O’Shea’s e-mail echoed the communal sorrow and assured that grief counselors would be available at school the next day.
On Monday, students returned to school, filing past the Bromfield flag flying at half-mast. Grief counselors were on hand to help students deal with the emotional aftermath. Students were seen throughout the day spending quiet time at the Bromfield boulder-turned-memorial beside the school building. Students were numb with shock.
“She did everything — athlete, good grades, artist,” O’Shea said, “she was an amazing all-around student.” O’Shea noted Peterson’s firm hold on the honor roll and her love of math. He added that Bromfield will serve as a support epicenter for Jessie’s classmates during the tragedy, “because we’re such a close-knit family.”
The boulder beside Bromfield has served the school in a variety of ways over the years. It’s many layers of paint could tell decades worth of stories, but the latest layer memorializes a school in mourning. How fitting that the popular and artistic student would be honored with such a public outpouring on the school grounds.
The “rock,” for lack of a better term, was repainted white over the weekend, with large letters spelling out “Jessie” painted in red. A rock garden has been planted before the boulder. Daffodils and spring pansies have been planted. Between the plantings are votive candles, rosary beads, and a lone stuffed white unicorn. In fact, references to unicorns, the field hockey team’s chosen but unofficial mascot, are scattered throughout the memorial.
A cross, approximately 4 feet high, was fashioned out of pine and painted white, standing front and center in the newly planted flower garden. At its base are a lacrosse stick and several field hockey sticks.
The third field hockey stick was placed at the foot of the cross on Tuesday night, before the Bromfield sports banquet, by a teammate who said the stick was Jessie’s and that she was returning it.
The rock also serves as a bulletin board of sorts, as students have taped notes and letters to all sides. The emotion in the handwritten notes is wrenching. “You are our unicorn,” wrote Liz. “You’ll never be forgotten,” wrote Briana. “We love you. Rest in peace,” wrote Laura. “You are amazing and will be in our hearts forever,” wrote Ashley.
One heartfelt message was inscribed directly onto the rock with crimson paint. It reads, “Cross my heart, hope to die. I see you in the stars at night. I’ll dream of you, dream tonight. And everything will be all right.” Signed simply, “Love Tyler, Always yours,” a classmate confirmed that the sentiment was written by Jessica’s boyfriend, 15-year-old Tyler Borton.
Childhood friend and fellow Bromfield freshman Hannah Keaney attended kindergarten with Jessie in Harvard. They were on the indoor track team together this winter. They were also in the same Photoshop and French classes this semester. Keaney last saw Jessie during Photoshop class last Friday.
During class, the duo would frequently roam the hallways together, snapping photos and short videos for class projects with their digital cameras. Keaney fought back tears when talking about her friend, adding that Jessie had a love for photography and all things artistic. Keaney’s handwritten note joyfully listed some recent adventures in photography class, but poignantly concluded, “I will never forget you as long as I live. You’ve brought so much joy into everyone’s life. Thank you.”
Fifteen-year-old Tyler Borton has known Jessie since their days as fourth grade classmates at Harvard Elementary School. He said that’s when he was first attracted to her, though they didn’t officially begin dating until sixth grade. After a hiatus, the couple reunited again in eighth grade, but Borton added, “I never stopped loving her.”
This school year, “we’d mostly hang out at the library after school, go to each other’s houses and watch movies, or hang out in class," said Borton. But they often had competing schedules. Jessie was involved in organized sports. Tyler, meanwhile, is the lead singer in a band. Sometimes Tyler would be on the sidelines for Jessie’s games, and sometimes Jessie would visit Tyler’s band at practice.
Borton said Jessie always discounted her performance on the field. She was shocked when given the chance to play on the varsity field hockey team, he said. He recounts that she scored three goals in her first varsity game. Her prowess propelled her as a freshman out of the junior varsity ranks and secured her a spot on varsity.
Borton says the adjustment to her loss is difficult. “Jessie inspires you,” he said, “she was always bright, always happy.” His favorite pictures are the ones of Jessie making goofy faces. It was Jessie’s endearing way that led to her large network of friends.
The last time Borton talked with Jessie was on Friday night. Last weekend was going to be difficult to find time to be together.
Borton was able to visit Jessie briefly last Sunday alongside her family before she passed away. After that, Borton said, the rest of Sunday was a whirlwind schedule of memorials. Borton credits band mate and fellow Bromfield student Will Byler for “looking out for me.”
“I knew she was a great girl,” he said, “but it was good to see what an effect she had on everyone. I knew it would have meant a lot to her to see it.”
On Wednesday, Jessie and Tyler were to be among students on a trip to Washington D.C. The trip has been postponed to June.
Jessica’s artistic talent was confirmed when her design was picked by the Harvard Lions Club for their 2007 Fall Festival. The watercolor artwork (see above) was used far and wide on both posters and T-shirts that year and for the 2008 Fall Festival. Peterson beat approximately 300 other submissions.
Harvard Lion Robert Kinnee said he well remembers his 2007 call to inform her that she was the winning artist. “She was thrilled.”
Kinnee will recommend to the Lions that they continue to use Jessie’s artwork for this year’s Fall Festival.
Parents who knew Jessie were stunned both by the loss of a family friend and again by watching their children deal with the emotional aftereffect. Fellow freshmen Kaitlyn Drummey and Jessie played together on the field hockey team and shared the same math class. But Kaitlyn’s father, John Drummey, fondly reminisced about past years when the girls, before the focus on boys began to divide their time, would hang out together for hours on end. “Jessie got along with everybody,” Drummey said.
Drummey said of the accident “it doesn’t make any sense and it’s not going to make any sense for some time.” He told his daughter, “I’d hoped you’d never have to experience a loss at your age.”
Drummey praised Principal O’Shea for his approach to the crisis. He said it’s entirely appropriate to give Jessie’s classmates room to grieve in their individual ways.
At Harvard Elementary School, where Jessie’s younger brother, Beck, attends classes, a letter came home in student backpacks with a leaflet titled “Grief and Loss” to offer tips on aiding students with trauma.
HES honored Jessie’s memory with a moment of silence, followed by age-appropriate discussions. Fifth-graders visited the Bromfield boulder bearing flowers, cards and notes. Grief assistance was also made available.
A Web site devoted to the Peterson family tragedy has been created and has served as a cyber touchstone for mourners to post messages of support for the family as well as providing updates. The Web site pledges to provide information on funeral arrangements when they’re available, and indicates “a foundation is in the process of being established for the family.” The Web site indicates online donations will be possible soon. Visit www.petersonfamilysupport.com to learn more.
A mail address is provided on the Web site for sending messages to the family, at Peterson Family, P.O. Box 513, Harvard, MA 01451. For a more immediate and public show of support, the Web site allows for sharing messages to the family in an online community message board.