by Julia Carachure
photography by Denisse Villalba and Veero Der-Karabetian
December is a time to celebrate the holidays; a time to relax and be with your family after enduring final exams. For most people, it is a time to be grateful for the things that you have in life and to appreciate them with your loved ones.
For one family, all of that changed on Dec.12, 1992, into a time of shock, mourning and disbelief. That year, University of La Verne senior marketing major Kelly Salamone died at the hands of a drunk driver, when he struck her car with his pickup truck while running a red light. She was only 21 years old.
On that day, Kelly’s evening had consisted of going out with three of her sorority sisters from Sigma Kappa – Sara Lester, Marlene Alcantar and Kim Stachniak to TGI Fridays for dinner. After their meal, the girls headed to Sara’s dorm room in the Oaks and spent the rest of the night talking until about 1 a.m.
“She hugged me, and then she got in her car and waved and drove away,” says Lester. “I went back to my room, and I just started studying for finals. It was like almost 2 a.m. I had gotten ready to go to bed, and my phone rang, and it was Kim, and she’s at home, and she said, ‘You know Sara, I am really worried. I called Kelly’s house, and she is not home yet.’ And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ and she said, ‘Well, Marlene and I were driving home-I saw a car that looked like Kelly’s car.'” It was then that Kim told Sara that there had been a car accident on Foothill and D Street, and she was not sure whether Kelly had been involved.
Meanwhile, less than 20 minutes away, the Salamones were sleeping soundly in their beds. The phone call came after 2 a.m.; the phone ringing incessantly from Kelly’s room. They were not pleased with the phone ringing so late at night. They thought it was one of Kelly’s friends who had forgotten about not calling Kelly late at night asking for her. “Doggone her, I have told people, ‘Do not call us that late at night.’ By then, she actually had her own phone, but you could hear it because the bedrooms are right across. So it rang and rang and rang,” Frank Salamone Sr., remembers what he was thinking as the phone kept ringing. He got up and unhooked the phone, only to be convinced by his wife Elaine to plug the phone back in case someone was trying to reach Kelly. Once he put the phone back in, it began to ring once again. This time, Elaine was the one who picked up the phone.
Concerned about Kelly, Sara informed the parents that Kelly was on her way home. She told them that there had been a terrible car accident, but that it did not look like Kelly’s car had been involved. Instantly, her mother said that she was pretty sure that it was Kelly’s car involved because she would have been home by that time since the family lived close to the University.
The minute they knew about the situation at hand, her father drove to the accident scene right away to confirm if it had, indeed, been Kelly who had been hurt. The police did not allow anyone to go anywhere near the car that was thought to be Kelly’s.
As he was approaching the car, two officers immediately stopped him. Yelling and hysterical, he tried to explain that his daughter’s car was involved. A sergeant then approached him, and Frank Sr. told the officer, “Just let me know, Kelly Salamone is my daughter’s name; was it Kelly’s car, was it Kelly’s car?” At first, the sergeant insisted that he could not say anything, and both officers were still holding Frank Sr. Finally, he nodded his head “yes,” confirming that it was indeed Kelly’s car. “All I want to know is where is she?” he asked. The sergeant then informed him that paramedics had taken her to Pomona Valley Hospital.
He went straight to the hospital. When he got there, he immediately went to the front desk and informed the desk attendants that he was Kelly Salamone’s father and asked whether she was there. Looking at one another, they informed him that she was there and asked for his insurance card. He told the attendants, “Take whatever you want; I want to see my daughter,” he recalls. “They took the information, and then this doctor took me in this little room, and I’m thinking ‘OK, there’s a bunch of people out there, and he took me to here.’ ”
The doctor then closed the door behind them. The doctor just stood there, stumbling to find words. It finally occurred to Frank Sr. that Kelly had died. After regaining his composure, the doctor informed him that he needed the rest of the family to come to the hospital.
A desk attendant dialed the family’s phone number and handed the phone to him. By then, it was 2:30 a.m., and he told his wife and son to come to the hospital. When they arrived, they also called Kim and Marlene and Kelly’s boyfriend Jeff Kelly, whom she had been dating for two and a half years and whom the family knew would have eventually become Kelly’s husband.
When Elaine and their son Frank Jr. arrived at the hospital, they were taken to a small room with Frank Sr. Twenty minutes later, the family came out of the room and told the girls that Kelly was gone. They broke down and began to cry as Jeff ran inside the hospital to find out what happened. When he saw them, he broke down and cried along with them.
While they were gathered at the hospital, the Salamones kept asking the doctors whether they could see her, only to be told that they could not because Kelly had to be seen by the coroner in Los Angeles first to perform an autopsy. Another reason they were not allowed to see her was partly due to the fact that, at the time, she was not in good condition for viewing.
Sara still remembers how she felt the next day, and how everyone was dealing with Kelly’s death. She describes what she did that weekend. “The next day, I woke up, and I am like, ‘There is no way; this just seems like a dream.’ I woke up late, it was like around 9 or 10 a.m. I was so numb; I just stayed at their house the whole day and that night and Sunday. I just went over there and stayed with them at their house, and we all just sat there in silence on the couch; we just needed to be together. We didn’t know how to deal with it.”
Jeff still remembers how he felt after Kelly died. “Pain was the only reality there was, and then after the pain was anger and after the anger there was probably feeling sorry for myself.”
Another call that needed to be made as well was calling another close friend of Kelly’s, Cathy Fleischer (now Cathy Plante), who was studying at the time abroad in England. Cathy recalls that it was around 3 a.m. in England when she received the call from another close friend Eileen Andrade. “I remember like it was yesterday,” says Plante. She paused. “I was sleeping, and there was only one telephone. I ran upstairs in my jammies, took the phone, not having any clue what the phone call was about, and I was [still] half asleep. Maybe it was a friend, I didn’t think about it.”
It was Eileen, calling to inform her that Kelly had died. Cathy remembers how she felt that night. “I just sat on the phone; I don’t even think I said anything. And then, probably after about 10 seconds, I really realized, ‘Oh my gosh, what just happened?’ I couldn’t believe it.” Cathy remembers vaguely that she screamed once the realization hit her.
Meanwhile, for the Salamones, the wait to see their daughter was agonizing. It was five days later that she was released to Custer Christiansen Mortuary in Glendora after being examined by the L.A. Coroner. Since they had not seen her, Frank Sr. made the mortuary officials promise him that Kelly would look nice. So they quickly went to work, and, in the end, she did. Two days later, Kelly was laid out, and a rosary was held in her honor at St. Dorothy’s in Glendora.
At the rosary, not a single pew was empty. Attendants had to resort to either standing in the aisles, in the back of the church or outside. People kept coming in to support the Salamones and to honor Kelly. The family was there for more than two and a half hours, long after the rosary was over because people were constantly coming in, whether they were Kelly’s friends or people who knew the family. The funeral took place the very next day.
At the funeral, Frank Sr. stopped counting at about 125 cars since so many people were showing up. More than 800 people in total arrived. It was during the mass that he started thinking about his children getting married, especially his only daughter. “And as we’re walking down the aisle, behind the casket, the pallbearers, it occurs to me that I am wearing a white boutonniere-and I am thinking in my mind and walking down the aisle-and it occurs to me this is the last time I am ever going to walk her down the aisle.”
Prior to her death, Kelly had been working part time at the Olive Garden in Montclair. Her manager called her family and offered to cater the gathering that was taking place after the funeral. No one had any idea how many people would be there, so they just kept bringing food inside. St. Dorothy’s Church also volunteered by bringing in chairs and tables for everyone in attendance. “It was the weirdest feeling, walking into a house after the funeral and feeling like a stranger in my house. It was just an awful feeling; it was eerie,” says Elaine, quietly describing the way she felt after Kelly’s funeral.
Many anti-drinking groups approached them to use Kelly’s death to promote the consequences of drunk driving, but, naturally, they declined. “We were numb,” says Elaine in regard to when these groups approached the family. By the time all the arrangements for Kelly were done, it was Christmas Eve.
Frank Sr. remembers with clarity what that was like. “That was a very strange year. We had Christmas Eve with Elaine’s family, and we went to Christmas with my family, but it was like we were going through the motions. It’s like we knew why, and it was strange.”
All of this fell at the hands of Gary Southworth, the former fourth grade teacher who was responsible for Kelly’s death. In January 1993, the criminal trial began, and some time later the civil case against him started. He ended up serving a year in county jail. “He was just washing the cars, things like that, at a police station,” says Elaine, not pleased that he got off so easily.
“It basically came down to this: He wasn’t speeding; they did a telemetry track to figure out what had happened, and how fast he was going. He was going the speed limit; he was going 40 miles an hour. He never saw the light; he never saw her, so he hit her at a flat 40 miles an hour as she was starting to come out of the intersection,” Frank Sr. recalls regarding the facts of the accident. “He never put the brakes on,” adds Elaine calmly.
Sara recalls how she felt when she saw Southworth walking around. “It blew my mind because typically you’d think it would be a college student out there drinking. And when I found out that he was a teacher, I couldn’t believe because I am a teacher myself, and I was becoming a teacher at the time. That was my goal. I just wanted to, not kill him, but wanted to go and just scream and yell and just shake him, and it really angered me because his school district supported him.”
While the civil trial was taking place, nobody left Frank Sr.’s side. Someone was always there to keep an eye on him in case he tried to hurt Southworth. Looking back, Frank Sr. is grateful of that. “The feelings were very raw; you go through a whole variety of things where you see somebody like that, this pompous idiot standing there like a know-it-all professor. What a jerk, what a jerk,” he says, thinking about the feelings he had toward Southworth.
Later on, when they looked at the police transcripts, the Salamones found out as well that Southworth was drunk to the point where he thought that the person he hit was a little hurt, but otherwise OK. When he was told that the young woman inside the car was dead, he fell apart and stopped talking. He was later taken away by the police.
Kelly was one semester away from graduating from the University of La Verne. University President Stephen Morgan told the Salamones before the first vigil held for her that he would present Kelly’s diploma at graduation. He proceeded to explain what was going to take place at the ceremony.
The Salamones attended her graduation, where they were presented with her diploma. A small ceremony took place, and five seconds into his speech, President Morgan stopped speaking; he couldn’t go on, and proceeded to give the Salamone family her posthumous diploma. The commencement crowd was emotional once they saw what happened. Her degree is now displayed on the parents’ wall at home as a reminder that she did indeed graduate.
About a year after Kelly passed away, Elaine was made an honorary member of Sigma Kappa. But she did not do this alone. Sara’s mother joined with her so she would have someone learning about Sigma Kappa along with her. She was taught everything that the sorority knows and does. For the first couple of years, she helped with some of the events that Sigma Kappa promotes.
For many families, losing a child is never an easy thing to go through. But for the Salamones, life went on for them, although it was not easy at first. Through the years, the Salamones have demonstrated that they are proof that life does go on long after a loved one dies. After some time, Elaine became a member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and she went back to work. She is currently working at Glendora Trophy, which specializes in engraving. Her husband, on the other hand, has been volunteering his time on and off to Boy Scouts and helping with retreats. Attending a bereavement group also helped them deal with what happened to their daughter.
“This year it will be eight years. It took us a few Christmases to make it Christmas again,” Frank Sr. says. “But we are getting there.” The Salamones have also learned some lessons over the years. Not everything is as big a deal as it normally would have been before the accident. “It sure makes you stop and think about life in general. Some things aren’t as major as they would have been before this major catastrophe,” says Elaine. “Life is too short to worry about every little thing,” answers Frank Sr.
So what has been the thing that has kept them going? The answer: Their faith and the idea that Kelly is watching over them. “I know that more than once she has slapped me upside the head when I got a little full of myself” Frank Sr. recalls, laughing. They realized that their faith kept them going when the priest that performed the funeral pointed that out to them.
Frank Sr. recalls what the priest said to them. “He said, ‘You know your faith is wondrous,’ and we both looked at each other, and he said, ‘Do you know,’ he said, ‘how many couples, younger and older, who have lost children come in here totally dead and so disoriented and just out there somewhere where they couldn’t deal with it at all?’ He said, ‘You know that is a testimony of your faith,’ and that is what it is, it’s how we are right now.”
“I never once questioned God as to why,” says Elaine. “People said both, ‘Do you still believe? Aren’t you bitter?’ and I said, ‘You know, I never questioned God.’ I never questioned Him; I think the only question I had for God is that He could have given her a few [more] years down here,” Frank Sr. adds.
Kelly’s brother, Frank Jr., has also had his view of life changed as well. He is more cautious about drinking, and it bothers him whenever someone talks about driving home drunk, especially since that is why his sister died. “I don’t think people understand it, until it happens actually, how serious it is,” he says.
The Salamones have learned something else through their bereavement group. “The hardest thing in the world to lose is a child and after about a month and a half, two months, the hardest thing in the world is to lose somebody you love, period. And it’s like you have to deal with it on your own terms, no matter how many pills you take, no matter how many doctors you go to-somewhere you have to sit down and make the decision,” says Frank Sr.
While the Salamones still miss Kelly, Frank Sr. says that when he sees a young woman, he is reminded of Kelly. “Seeing a young woman in a business suit marching off to do battle with the business world or a young mom with her kids going to a community church” jolts him forward to what Kelly could have done with her life.
The Salamones are not concerned about Southworth anymore. Frank Sr. recalls what family members have said to them. “For years the family said, ‘You know, we happen to know people who know him and know where he lives and what he’s doing,’ and I said, ‘You, know, I am done with that man,’ every now and then when, I get really depressed, then I think about, ‘Well you know, once everybody is grown up and out of the house, and I don’t have any problems, you have to consider this again,’ and it’s like, you’re raising a doubt, and he’s not worth it; he really isn’t. I have to believe that the good Lord takes care of everybody,” he laughs. “When he hits the gate, he’s going to have to answer to life, so we just do what we need to do.” While talking about Southworth, he looks at his wife and reaches out to touch her arm to see if she is OK. She only nods, indicating that she is fine.
Kelly has left her legacy with everyone who knew her. When Frank Sr. describes his daughter, he says that she was someone who could not be contained. “She didn’t lack energy, that was for sure,” he laughs, remembering her. “She was a go-getter, one of those people that got along with everybody. She was a total Italian; you didn’t stand in her way.” Kelly was also an inspiration to others. “She was a good example. She was so organized and put together, you could rely on her,” says Cathy.
Friends and family remember her as a very feminine girl who put plenty of effort to look her very best. “She was very feminine and put a lot of time in the way she looked. In some ways, she was very high maintenance,” says Jeff. Eileen recalls the time when it was Jeff’s birthday, and Kelly looked her very best. Jeff was so stunned with how she looked that when he went to hug her, Kelly told him not to wrinkle her clothes.
ULV also has not forgotten Kelly. Friends and family, along with University Relations, set up a memorial scholarship that is awarded each year to a deserving student. The requirements to qualify include being a female business major in her senior year with an emphasis in marketing and a 3.0 grade point average. A tree was also planted in her honor near Founders Hall.
Kelly’s memory is still honored by her sorority. A candlelight vigil is held for her every year. “Oftentimes, we think that drunk driving happens, and you don’t know the people who are involved, so it’s not important to you; you don’t take it into consideration until it happens close to home. So we try to put it at a real-life level; it’s happened to someone who was at this school, and even though a lot of us don’t know her, we still feel through educating our members and people on campus that we got to know how much of a special person she was, and how drunk driving took her away, and that it happens to many other people,” says current Sigma Kappa President Joy Gardner.
In addition to that, Sigma Kappa also has a program called Alcohol 101 to teach their members about the pitfalls of drunk driving. They have a designated sister program, which has people acting as designated drivers. Sigma Kappa also has a memory book on Kelly, which is updated often. The book includes pictures of Kelly and articles that have been written about her. It is always present at the vigil, which takes place at the tree that was planted in her honor, near the University Seal.
This year, the vigil will be held in the spring. A song is traditionally sung, entitled “Pass It On.” The vigil is a “way for us to know Kelly, to experience her without her being here,” Gardner says. “They tell us funny stories like her being pushed into a pool at a party.” Sara comes to the vigil yearly to share stories about Kelly. “As time goes by, the girls don’t know; none of them have met her; none of the girls even knew who she was, and so basically for me, it’s a way of telling the girls about who she was, and why she’s so special, and why it means so much to us that they keep her memory alive.”
Her spirit is still present throughout the University in many ways, from her sorority sisters and through the personal memories of friends and family. She was indeed an example to everyone that one should live life to the fullest. It has been evident that she did that during her brief life.
She may not be here in body, but her spirit is still here, and if one looks around long enough, she may see her as an angel guarding her loved ones from above, wherever they are, with a smile on her face.