DeKALB - The sun briefly pierced a leaden sky as about 25 people gathered Saturday to dedicate a permanent memorial to Antinette “Toni” Keller, college student murdered in October 2010.
Thelma Holderness, a Northern Illinois University employee who created the “Summoning of Yellow” Facebook remembrance page and is a friend of the Keller family, read a short statement from Keller's family. In the statement, family members said they are continuing the long, difficult journey of grieving her.
“Having this Sunflower Bench is very special in our hearts, as well as all the people who helped to make this happen," the statement said. “Words cannot express how we feel about all the people and work that was put into this. We feel so incredibly loved.”
Keller, an 18-year-old from Plainfield, was last seen Oct. 14, 2010, when she told friends she was going for a walk in Prairie Park. Her burned remains were found in the park two days later. Within a few weeks, officials arrested DeKalb resident William Curl, now 36, and Curl ultimately accepted a controversial plea agreement that sent him to prison for 37 years for Keller's murder.
About 25 people gathered at the DeKalb Elks Lodge, 209 S. Annie Glidden Road, for the dedication of the memorial bench.
Because of its proximity to the crime scene and its community service focus, the DeKalb Elks Lodge has maintained a memorial on its property to honor Keller’s life. Part of the Elks mission statement mentions “principles of Charity, Justice, [and] Brotherly Love.”
“We were more than willing to do whatever we can do,” Jamie Cochrane, lodge president, said Friday. “We felt that this happened in our backyard, so we try to do whatever we can. We’re a community oriented organization.”
Holderness frequently saw Keller at NIU and fondly remembers her.
“I knew that when she’d hear or see me coming, she was going to look up at me and flash me that brilliant smile we’ve all come to know from the photographs,” Holderness said. “Toni Keller’s beautiful, brilliant smile. Her sassy freckles and her cropped, auburn hair. And that unmistakable, undeniable light that shone about her. And still does.”
Durham, N.C.-based Cricket Forge created the five-foot-wide “sunflower bench,” a lovely, steel work shaped as sunflowers. Organizers intentionally placed it facing away from Prairie Park, Holderness said.
Elks members Mark Klatt, Ron Setchell and Mark Setchell, built the pad with concrete donated by Rochelle-based Regional Ready Mix. Besides the donation of time and labor, the Elks hosted fund-raisers to pay for the $3,200 bench.
Greg Zanis built the cross by the memorial. Zanis, an electrician and carpenter from Aurora, founded “Crosses for Losses.” He began building crosses in 1996 to cope with the slaying of his father-in-law. Since then, he has built and donated more than 13,000 crosses across the country. He attended Saturday’s gathering.
Meanwhile, some remain concerned about Prairie Park's safety.
Jim Anderson, owner of Illini Tire Co., was headed home Saturday when he saw people gathered and knew what the gathering must be. Anderson remarked that if a young college student had told him she was going to that park to shoot photos or enjoy some recreation, he would warn against it.
“If there’s any way that young college students could work out some kind of communication with the locals of the town of where you can go … where you can’t go … and I know that’s difficult,” Anderson said.
Still, Saturday’s gathering was about remembering someone who brought light and joy to many, and who was taken too soon.
“We’re trying to do whatever we can to make it better,” Cochrane said. “There’s no way to make it right.”