Like many University of Mississippi students, Mason Wilbanks, Sam Clayton Kelly and Walker Kelly enjoyed the Grove on football Saturdays. All three graduated from Madison Central High School, attended Broadmoor Baptist Church and pledged the same fraternity.
But on the morning of Oct. 30, 2011, the three friends were killed as they headed back to Ole Miss when their car veered off Interstate 55 north of Jackson and crashed onto Highway 35. Their legacies will continue together, though, thanks to the many lives they touched and to a memorial scholarship created in their names. Family, friends and the Kappa Alpha Order have contributed $81,000 to an endowment that continues to be open for gifts.
Ken Wilbanks of Madison, Mason's father, said there has been "overwhelming support and concern" from the Ole Miss family and from across Mississippi.
"The families are extremely touched and truly humbled by the outpouring of love and support shown us during this very difficult and trying time," he said. "But I can't say I'm surprised. That, to me, is the essence of what Ole Miss truly is about, and what those who aren't 'Rebels' will never fully understand about this wonderful institution. 'We are Ole Miss' is much, much more than a cheer on Saturdays in the fall."
Sam Clayton's father, Sam Kelly of Madison, spoke about the students' priorities that he hopes will live on through the scholarship.
"It is not often that you hear the term 'legacy' used in regard to 18- and 19-year-old boys, but the term clearly fits Mason, Walker and Sam Clayton," Kelly said. "They left a legacy of what it means to be true friends, humble servants and avid Ole Miss Rebels. As parents, we are humbled that our boys made, and continue to make, such an impact on so many. Through the overwhelming support of the Kappa Alpha Order and many friends, this scholarship endowment will allow Mason, Walker and Sam Clayton's legacy to continue well into the future."
Losing young people affects the entire community, said Thomas "Sparky" Reardon, dean of students. "Students are the fabric that makes up Ole Miss. When you lose one, you hurt. When you lose three outstanding young men at the beginning of their college careers, it is particularly devastating."
Responding to the loss, UM's Kappa Alpha chapter contacted its national organization for support, as well as KA members, parents and friends across the Southeast, said chapter President Matthew Jones of Birmingham. The Ole Miss chapter also hosted activities, including a silent auction and a golf tournament, to contribute to the scholarship endowment.
"We're pleased that the scholarship endowment has reached this level, but it's something we hope will continue to grow long after the current members have graduated and new faces take our place," Jones said. "We feel the amount of support we've received not only reflects on these three young men, their families and our chapter but also on the university, its administration and alumni. The Ole Miss family cares. Our chapter received support from other Greek and campus organizations. These were three really great guys who were basically getting their lives started, and so many people knew them."
That sentiment was echoed by Chris Kelly of Madison, Walker's father.
"In the short time that these boys spent on the campus of Ole Miss, they were able to touch the lives of many," he said. "The scholarship endowment was established to make sure that their enthusiasm for helping others continued. With the support of the University of Mississippi, the KA fraternity, and countless friends and family this has become a reality. Though Mason, Sam Clayton and Walker were only able to participate in just over two months of their Ole Miss dream, these scholarships will assist in making sure that other students have the ability to make their Ole Miss dreams come true. And at the same time, the scholarships will keep the contagious spirit of Mason, Sam Clayton, and Walker alive on the campus of Ole Miss for years to come."
Wilbanks and his family were often on the Oxford campus.
"Having taken Mason to Ole Miss sporting events his entire life, I am just so thankful he got to experience life as an Ole Miss student, albeit brief," Ken Wilbanks said. "Mason once expressed his feeling for his university in a high school English paper: 'If my family were a color, it wouldn't be just one. It would be both red and blue because my whole family bleeds Ole Miss.' Mason, Sam Clayton and Walker were loving the Ole Miss experience, and KA played a large part. We want God to be glorified through all this. More than anything else, that's what we want."
Sam Kelly reflected on the symbolism of the scholarship.
"The Ole Miss alma mater reminds us that 'There Ole Miss is calling, calling, to our hearts fond memories.' Through this scholarship endowment, the fond memories created by Mason, Walker and Sam Clayton during their short time at Ole Miss will live forever. And, our hearts will be forever grateful to our Ole Miss, their friends and the Kappa Alpha Order for this great remembrance."
The fraternity is working on guidelines to begin awarding scholarships this fall. The endowment is open to gifts from individuals and organizations. To contribute, send checks with the Kelly, Kelly and Wilbanks Scholarship noted to the University of Mississippi Foundation, 406 University Avenue, Oxford, MS 38655; contact Sandra Guest at 662-915-5208 or firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit http://www.umfoundation.com/makeagift.