They all died in the same horrific tragedy ― the Feb. 13, 2023, mass shooting at Michigan State University. But they share much more than that.
They were selfless. They were leaders. They were helpers. And, a year after their deaths, their communities continue to honor and admire their qualities as loved ones grapple with the reality of lives taken before they had a chance to be lived.
The families of Anderson and Fraser declined to be interviewed for this article. Friends, teachers and others in the lives of all three students reflected on their impact and the ways they will be remembered.
Alex Verner: The teammate who made everyone feel important
It has been almost a year since a gunman terrorized the Michigan State University campus, killing Alexandria Verner, a 20-year-old junior from Clawson.
Almost a year since the phone calls and text messages that sent Verner’s close-knit hometown reeling. Since the funeral Mass where mourners said their last goodbyes.
And yet, Verner’s presence is everywhere, especially in the gym where the Clawson girls varsity basketball team — a team she once led — played last week.
Her signature, a replica of that on her driver’s license, painted onto the gymnasium floor, serves as a focal point. Her jersey number, 24, and her initials, AV, are also painted onto the floor and when the announcer introduced the home team’s starters, each girl ran down the court and touched the initials as part of a pregame rite. “I admit, it caught me by surprise,” Verner’s father, Ted Verner, said of the first time he witnessed the ritual. The man who thought he had no more tears left to cry for the middle of his three children, welled up. “Because I see the love they have for my daughter,” he said.
What do you do when someone beloved is taken, when they’re snatched away while their whole life sits in front of them? You curse the circumstances and the unfairness of everything. (“Dad, I love being at Michigan State,” Verner said the weekend before she died. And her father thought, “It doesn’t get much better” than this, seeing your kid happy and on the right track.) You curse the person responsible for their death. An “animal,” that’s what Ted Verner calls the gunman. You cry ― because you miss her and because you don’t know what else to do and because part of you thinks maybe you could have done something to help even though you couldn’t have. (“She was like a little sister to me,” said Raquel Lewis who, two years older than Verner, adopted her younger basketball teammate and felt a responsibility to check in with her after graduation. “It was a hard loss to navigate because it almost felt like I’d failed her in a way.”) You cry for everyone who cared about her. You ache for her parents and wonder how they will ever be the same, until you figure out they won’t be the same, nothing will be the same. “We’re slipping into what we call a new normal,” Ted Verner said recently.
And then, at some point, after you realize you will never hug or hold her again ― at least not in this life, depending on your beliefs ― you make a decision. You decide, as the Verner family and as much of Clawson has, that you will keep her alive, at least in spirit.
Clawson is a small town. It measures 2.2 square miles. About 1,200 students attend the district’s schools, including 400 at the high school where Verner, who was known as Alex or Al, was a good student and played varsity softball and volleyball, in addition to basketball. If people didn’t know her, their parents or siblings or cousins or babysitters did. Or they know her older brother, T.J., who graduated from Clawson in 2019. Or her younger sister, Charlie, who graduated from Clawson in 2022. Or her mother, Nancy, who teaches at one of the elementary schools. Or her father, a member of the school board, who also kept the records at basketball games and sometimes still does. And that is why Alex Verner’s death feels so personal.
The front yards of some of the houses, and the windows of some businesses, still have signs up, showing support for the MSU students and for Verner in particular. “MSU STRONG,” they say, though the O is shaped like a heart and inside the heart are the initials A.V.
Donations through a credit union raised $140,000, which the Verner family is using to fund a scholarship in Alex Verner’s name. Available to a Clawson high student who wants to continue his or her education in college or trade school, the award is meant to help students who share her qualities. According to the scholarship application criteria: “Alex Verner was full of talent, drive, love and kindness. She embodied a selfless attitude in every aspect of her life. She loved to serve others and did it with compassion. She was athletic, creative and found success in the classroom through hard work and perseverance.”
Last year’s winner received $10,000. This year’s winner, who will be announced in May, is to receive $25,000.
“So many people were touched by Al when she was here,” said Clawson school superintendent Billy Shellenbarger, a longtime friend of the Verner family and Alex Verner’s former youth league basketball coach. “We want Al’s legacy to be ever-present.”
And for that, the Verner family is thankful. “We would not be standing upright if it were not for Clawson,” Ted Verner said shortly before the basketball game started.
The team gathered near Verner’s signature for a pregame huddle. The girls wore white and green bows tied in their shoe laces. Evie Liford, a 17-year-old senior had written AV24 in green marker on the inside of her right wrist, something she does before every game. Before the huddle broke, someone shouted AV and then someone else shouted 24 and the girls went back and forth several times, making the chant their battle cry. “Everything that we do, we always say, ‘Play like Al,” said Alana O’Kane, a 16-year-old junior.
Many of the girls met Verner because she helped with their elementary school basketball league or the summer camp that included middle school players or because she dropped by the gym during college vacations. “She’s inspirational, she put a smile on everybody’s face every day,” said Cassidy Perry, a 15-year-old sophomore. “Everyone wanted to be like her.”
Verner was competitive and loved to win. “She was the best player on every team she was on,” said Shellenbarger. “But she also high-fived, laughed and cried with the … player that never played and made them feel valuable.”
Because, to her, sports were about more than keeping score.
“Al was so good in grounding me,” said Jim Sparks, Verner’s varsity softball coach. “When I would get upset at practice … she would always have a smile, just kind of tell me to relax with a smile on her face. I think it made me a better coach because Al embodied why we play sports. She was competitive, she was there to win. At the same time, she was there to have fun.”
From the very start of last week’s game, the girls on the court ― which has been renamed in Verner’s honor ― seemed to be having fun. Their season has been difficult. Their last ― and only win ― was in November. But they looked strong and at halftime, they were ahead of the team from Ferndale’s University High School by more than 30 points. And by the final buzzer, they’d won the game, 49-4.
Liford, who’d written AV24 on her wrist, was the high scorer, with eight points; she also had six rebounds.
On Feb. 13, Clawson schools students and staff members are to honor Alex Verner by wearing T-shirts bearing her name or the MSU Strong message. A vigil in her honor is scheduled to take place at 7:30 p.m at the softball field at Clawson City Park, 935 N. Custer Ave., Clawson.
“It doesn’t even feel real, still,” Liford said of Verner’s death. “It feels like it just happened.”
Arielle Anderson: An aspiring doctor, dedicated student
When Arielle Anderson was in the sixth grade, she gave her teacher doughnut holes to go with her much-needed morning coffee for Teacher Appreciation Day.
She would volunteer her lunch time to help decorate the classroom and organize papers.
It’s these moments that stay with Adra Young, Anderson’s sixth grade teacher from Ronald Brown Academy in Detroit.
“Her future was so bright and it was removed (in) an instant,” said Young, who taught at the Detroit Public Community School District for 21 years, before moving to Indiana.
Those who knew Anderson — even in passing and if only for one school year — were shocked by her death at the hands of a gunman. But her legacy lives on, they say, a year later.
At her funeral at the Zion Hope Baptist Church in Detroit, Anderson — or Arie as her family called her — was remembered as kind and caring. The sophomore had her heart set on graduating early and becoming a surgeon.
Anderson went to Parcells Middle School and graduated from Grosse Pointe North High School in 2021.
Anderson, 19, of Harper Woods, was hardworking and dedicated and she embraced her middle name, “Diamond,” with her smile and demeanor, said Roy Bishop Jr., deputy superintendent of the Grosse Pointe Public School System. Bishop collected memories about Anderson from staff before he spoke at her funeral.
“She has a legacy here,” he said in a recent interview.
During eighth grade mock elections, she was voted most likely to succeed. She was a member of the student council and remained on the honor roll. Anderson had decided early that she wanted to become a doctor.
While in high school, she took an applied medicine class and her research question focused on helping support children with mental illness, depression and anxiety, Bishop said. She was a mentor and helped younger students acclimate from middle school to high school.
“For us, it was a legacy of her making school her job, her priority, and really putting the needs of others … before her needs,” he said.
He described her as a good listener and a natural born leader, who was mature and positive.
“She was an inspiration not only for students, but also for adults, and she continues to be an inspiration,” he said.
Anderson was a talented photographer, too. One of her photographs was selected for an art exhibition in 2021 for promising artists from high schools across the region put together by the Grosse Pointe Artists Association.
Young said the students in her sixth grade class were like a family and so when she first found out that a former student died as a result of gun violence, she was in denial. It felt like she lost one of her children, she said. Anderson was the third student of hers, who she taught in Detroit, killed by gun violence, she said. Young spoke to several of the students, who are now young adults in college, over the phone after Anderson’s death so they could lean on one another.
“These young adults and children, they didn’t get to live out their life to their fullest potential. It was taken from them unfairly,” she said.
Brian Fraser: Teammate, friend and fraternity brother
From grade school to college, those who knew Brian Fraser continue to act in big and small ways to remember him.
Near Fraser’s church in Grosse Pointe Farms, one of his childhood friends sometimes sits out by the water where he can still feel Fraser’s presence. At his former Catholic school, students were asked to honor him through an act of goodwill. At Michigan State University, his fraternity — which he led as chapter president — named the library inside their house after the 20-year-old sophomore. And at his old high school, the lacrosse team retired his No. 11 jersey.
“He was one of ours,” said Justin Macksoud, head boy’s lacrosse coach at Grosse Pointe South High School.
Macksoud first coached Fraser when he was in the fifth grade, then years later while he was in high school. He recalled a moment that illustrated Fraser’s character. During Fraser’s senior year, Macksoud needed him to switch positions for the betterment of the team. It was an unfamiliar role for Fraser, but he still stepped up.
“Without batting an eye, without an attitude … he willingly accepted the role and he really excelled at it. And he still was one of the best kids on the team. He was just completely selfless. It’s just the kind of kid he was,” Macksoud said.
He would give his teammates rides home and helped them with drills. The team always came first.
Macksoud’s players wear helmets with Spartan green and white stickers that read “BF11,” a nod to Fraser and his retired jersey number. The team also started the Brian Fraser Memorial Award, given each year to a student who embodies Fraser’s characteristics, as the “ultimate teammate” — enthusiastic, selfless, positive and committed.
As a student at St. Paul on the Lake Catholic School, Fraser was kind and polite to classmates, clergy and teachers, Principal Tina Forsythe said.
“He always had a smile on his face,” Forsythe said.
In November, the school asked students to perform an act of kindness in Brian’s name for World Kindness Day. Fraser’s friend Sam Cielieska knew him since playground days in preschool at St. Paul. They had been close ever since — playing sports together and taking trips Up North.
“He was my brother,” he said.
The last time he talked to Fraser was during a long commute to work. They threw jokes around and chatted about the weekend when they hung out.
“The last time I heard his voice is over a phone, which is kind of brutal,” he said. “But I’ll remember those jokes and those phone calls and just the memories.”
When school was virtual, Fraser and his friends would ride their bikes every day to sit out by the water near Lake Shore Drive, talking about life during the pandemic and life after college.
“I’ll go sit by the water sometimes,” he said. “It’s like he’s there.”
Up and down Fraser’s block, there are green and white bows on the trees, Cielieska said. There’s a bench at the church placed in his honor. His friends collected donations to put up another bench at Grosse Pointe South High School. They adopted a highway in Otsego County. The plan is for a 2-mile stretch of Interstate 75 to bear his name — Brian Anthony Fraser Memorial.
After Fraser’s death, fraternity leaders and Fraser’s parents quickly set up a scholarship fund. Since then, the campaign raised more than $150,000 — well above a $75,000 goal — and helped create two annual scholarships in Fraser’s name: one for future MSU chapter presidents and the other for first-generation Michigan State Phi Delta Theta students. Three students have received scholarships already.
Ryan Bennett, a junior studying economics and the chapter’s current president, is the most recent recipient. The scholarship means that he can graduate college with less debt than he expected.
Fraser was chapter president for only two and half months, Bennett said, but he was someone who valued brotherhood and philanthropy. He wanted to raise money through different events. The chapter is continuing Fraser’s goals, raising funds to treat ALS. A memorial fund has garnered more than $17,500.
“Being in this role, following in Brian’s footsteps, it’s a lot to fill, but it means a lot, and I’m very grateful to be here,” Bennett said.
Then there’s the library in their house, with its walls commemorating Fraser. A plaque outside the room bears Fraser’s name, honoring “Our Leader, Friend and Brother.” It’s filled with framed pictures of Fraser, his Phi Delta Theta bid card, jerseys and a painting of him.
On the one-year mark of his death, the fraternity plans to plant a tree in his memory outside the chapter house.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Family, friends, communities remember lives lost in MSU shooting