When the Shawnee High School Class of 2014 turns their tassels Tuesday night, two members of that class won't be there to share in that milestone. But the two — who died in 2011 — won't be forgotten either.
When the Shawnee High School Class of 2014 turns their tassels Tuesday night, two members of that class won’t be there to share in that milestone. But the two — who died in 2011 — won’t be forgotten either.
Before the SHS seniors graduate and go separate ways to begin new chapters of their own lives, members of that class will plant a tree in front of the high school in honor of Nicholas Glen Birchett and Taylor Edward Ricks, who died following a traffic accident in December 2011. Nick was 15 and Taylor was 16.
Their mothers, Jennifer Birchett and Tonya Ricks, with a dozen sets of blue flowers and a dozen yellow ones, set out to place them around two crosses at Airport and Saratoga Streets, where the teen’s classmates started a roadside memorial that’s been there since the accident in 2011.
“It’s a way to honor them for graduation,” Birchett said, adding that students normally decorate the site but they decided they wanted to do something special to honor their sons, who should be graduating this year.
Jennifer Birchett and Tonya Ricks knew of each other before their sons died — their sons played soccer and football together. But they had never really met until tragedy brought the two of them together on a cold December day. Ever since, they’ve been a source of comfort to each other in a friendship that is like no other.
Both say they plan to go to graduation, but they know it will be difficult.
And while they and their families hold on to precious memories of Nick and Taylor, both moms laughed when remembering the good times with their sons.
Birchett said Nick was kind to all students and was one to welcome friends, even those who were outcasts from other groups.
One day, he even wore his hair to school like Alfalfa from the Little Rascals, his mother said, because he was comfortable with himself and wanted others students to feel that way too.
Ricks said her son was a “goofball” who made people laugh.
“Taylor liked to make sure everyone else was having a good day — he would always joke or do something to make them laugh,” Ricks said. “He wasn’t afraid to be himself.”
Both said both teens were always themselves and had fun together.
Hannah Brooks, who will be among the senior class graduating Tuesday night, met Nick in school and knew Taylor well since they lived next door to each other growing up. As they grew up, their friendship grew too.
“We would sit under the tree and just talk — deep conversations,” Brooks said.
As class treasurer, Brooks said the senior class is planning to honor Nick and Taylor this graduation year, as there are plans to get a plaque and plant a tree in their memory at the high school. They’re also planning to have a place where classmates can write notes to them in memory, she said.
Although it’s been more than two years since they died, Brooks said it’s still hard to wrap her mind around what happened to them and the loss. She said both of them had so much potential, and commented about Taylor being a talented musician in band and was growing his talents in drama. She described Nick as one of the nicest people to be around.
And while Brooks said she and her classmates are finishing one chapter of their lives and will move on, they’ll always remember Nick and Taylor as teenagers who will forever be 15 and 16 years old.
“In our minds, they’re still the same,” said Brooks, who will be attending Oklahoma Baptist University this fall.
Nick and Taylor were together on Dec. 15, 2011, and on their way back to Shawnee High School when they were involved in a crash along Airport Drive. The vehicle they were in collided with another vehicle on the curve, with the accident also injuring that driver. Birchett died that night and Ricks the following morning.
Taylor was in the percussion section of the SHS band, with his love for music earning his the nickname “iPod” as he was rarely without his tunes. His passion for music extended to the SHS drama program.
As a student at SHS, Nick found a new passion in tennis, and in the spring of 2011, he was the only freshman tennis player to represent SHS at the state championship.
Both teens loved to smile and laugh and bring joy to others, so it’s no surprise that news of their deaths deeply affected their classmates.
The students and school have honored them in different ways. For Nick, the annual invitational tennis tournament at the school is now named the Nicholas Birchett Invitational. In honor of Taylor, there is now an SHS band percussion award in his name.
And while it’s comforting to see their legacies live on in different ways, it’s still hard for the parents, the moms said.
Birchett said people often don’t want to mention her son to her because it could upset her, but she would rather people remember him.
“It’s always on my mind — I never forget whether I’m smiling or crying,” Birchett said about her son’s death. “Any time you remember my son, that makes me happy.”
Both still find it hard to imagine they’ve lost their sons.
“I’m that parent and I still don’t believe it,” Birchett added.
And there’s no doubt the two moms lean on each other for support.
“I couldn’t have gone through this without her,” Birchett said of Ricks, tears filling both their eyes. Ricks said they try to be comforting to each other.
Birchett is grateful that she’s not going through her grief alone.
Both moms said they’ve kept in touch with some of their son’s friends, which has been a comfort to them as well.
Johnathan Burnett, a junior this year, attended middle school with Taylor and became best friends with Nick during his freshman year.
“What I remember most is Taylor making everybody laugh…and Nick making everyone smile,” Burnett said, describing both of them as “happy, outgoing people.”
Kaylan Westbrook, another senior who is graduating Tuesday, spoke about both teens.
“Taylor was like a brother figure for me,” she said, adding that Nick was “charismatic” and always made her laugh.
“Obviously we miss them,” Westbrook said, although she believes Taylor and Nick would want their classmates to take lessons from them as they all move on to different areas of their lives.
“Everyone can take away something from them,” Westbrook said. “Don’t put off getting right with God…we have no idea when our last day is going to be.”