ITHACA, NY – What happens when a town becomes defined by its dark past? A series of tragedies in the 90s left a shadow over the town of Dryden, but a local group has been working to lift that shadow.
Between 1994 and 1999, Dryden was the site of at least nine premature deaths, including three homicides, two suicides, three fatal car accidents and a sudden heart attack. Seven of those who died were high-schoolers. The other two were well-loved members of the school faculty.
In the wake of those events, as well as a brutal quadruple murder in 1989, the town found itself labeled with an unpleasant nickname: “The Village of the Damned.“
Touched by tragedy
Rhonda Kowalski, who now heads up the Lion Legacy group, grew up in the midst of those difficult times and knew many of those that passed. Her house was on the same street and she went to the same church as Katie Savino, who would later die in 1999 car accident. Stephen Starr would’ve been her basketball coach in 1995, but he was killed just before the New Year.
“My entire high school career was touched by the tragedies,” Kowalski said. “Eighth grade: Coach Starr, tenth grade: Jen, Sarah and Scott. My senior year was Katie and Gary Cassell. By the end we were all numb and couldn’t react as much as we may have wanted/needed to.”
“I specifically remember having the conversation after Gary passed that we all knew it wasn’t over,” she recalled. “We felt the black cloud hovering over us and three days later we found out about Katie.”
“I distinctly remember hearing his iconic walk down the hallway with his shoes clicking on the floor and his keys swinging in the air,” she said of Gary Cassell, who was Dryden High’s athletic director. “He was cooking at our Senior Picnic the Friday before he died and that was the last time I remember seeing him.” Cassell died of a sudden heart attack in 1999.
Reclaiming a legacy
The unfortunate series of tragedies drew a lot of media attention at the time. She said that the media spectacle, both in the midst of the events and again every time the story gets revisited, has changed the way people look at the town.
This is reflected in the Lion Legacy group’s mission statement:
Tragedy. That is what defined Dryden for so long, or at least that’s how the media portrayed us. And in part, it was true. You can’t deny the immense loss that we suffered. To honor the memories of everyone that has been lost, not just those in tragedy, not just those in the mid 90s, but everyone. Our legacy is how we came together. Our legacy is our community. Our legacy is our successes, not our tragedies.
“It’s not how they died that should be remembered, but how they lived and how the community came together,” said Kowalski.
Kowalski’s reasons for being so committed to the cause go beyond remembrance of those lost during those tragic years. It was when her father, a dedicated community volunteer, passed in 2010 that she was set on her mission.
“When he died, my biggest fear is that he would be forgotten,” she said. “I became extremely passionate about wanting to remember the lives of everyone that had passed in this community and not just those we remember because of the tragic way they passed.”
It started with what was supposed to be a simple re-dedication ceremony for the memorial rock that had been dedicated to eight of those who died during the 1990s and another who passed in 2005.
The large memorial rock sits just outside the football stadium in a memorial garden.
They wanted to give Dryden’s current students a connection to the past, the monuments at the high school, and the people behind them.
The re-dedication ceremony, which happened during Homecoming in 2014, was the jumping off point for the group. “It grew in to so much more,” said Kowalski.
This year, with donations from members of the Dryden community the group was able to provide two $500 “Lion Legacy” scholarships to graduating seniors. They also erected a large star on the football field’s press box, in honor of Coach Starr.
Looking back and looking forward
Thanks for a GoFundMe campaign, which has raised just over $1,700 in two months, the group also has planned a “Walk to Remember” for May. Anyone from the community is able to submit the name of a lost loved one – over 140 names have been submitted so far. During the walk, the names will be read aloud as luminary bags are lit for each of them.
The school and the relatives of the deceased have been incredibly supportive of the work the group has been doing, Kowalski said. The biggest challenge has been trying to structure the events in a sensitive way that doesn’t re-open old wounds or inviting another negative media frenzy.
Kowalski said that the scholarships and Walk to Remember are intended to be continue annually. While she’s not sure exactly where to go next, she’s knows she’s not finished.
“I’ve been living here for so long and been involved for so long, I want to make a difference and I want to use this as the vehicle in which to do that,” she said.