Entire Albion community mourns after tragedy ends life of Albion College student
By MICHELLE MUELLER
©The Recorder November 14, 2019
“Our Albion College students belong to all of us and are on loan from their families. We have a responsibility to make sure they are good. In the coming hours and days, the entire Albion College family will mourn. That means we, their family, their Albion, mourns with them as well. Reach out to them, make sure that they are fine. Offer an ear to hear them, a hand to comfort them and a shoulder to cry on.” So urged Albion resident John Face in an eloquent statement recently posted on social media.
The writer was referring to a tragic death that had occurred the night before: at approximately 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, November 9, 19-year-old Albion College student Zachary Winston, who, according to Albion Department of Public Safety Chief Scott Kipp’s interview with the train’s engineer, intentionally walked in front of a westbound Amtrak, was found dead at the pedestrian crossing just west of the Erie Street crossing. There were 65 passengers on board the Wolverine Train 355 which passes through Albion nightly, and there were no reported injuries on the train; service was temporarily suspended.
So, while Albion College is reeling from the loss of one of their students, the Albion community at large is saddened mightily that despite the combined presence of the College’s staff and students, and the caring people who are permanent residents here, Winston’s life could not be saved.
Tuesday evening, Goodrich Chapel on the Albion College campus was packed with more than 1,400 mourners at a private vigil in Zachary’s honor.
As guests entered the lobby, they were informed that on nearby tables were pens and blank notes were available with which to write messages of condolence for Winston’s family, and by 7:30 when the event started, large baskets were filled to the brim with folded notes.
The Chapel’s first floor seating quickly filled to capacity as hundreds of people entered the building. It was not too long before guests had to be directed to additional seating in the balcony. Even when all seats were filled, mourners squeezed in to stand behind and next to the pews.
The life, leadership, and legacy of Zachary Winston was remembered and celebrated at the vigil, with reflections led by Albion’s Chaplain, Rev. Donald Phillips, with support from various student leaders and members of the Albion Basketball Team.
Village elders Vivian Davis and Hazel Lias were both at the vigil and were especially touched by the profound message delivered by Zach’s suitemate.
“The statements of love and support were so tastefully done,” Lias commented.
Davis claims that in all her years in Albion, she’d never experienced the palpable sense of putting aside any differences and coming together as one unit that permeated the chapel. “It was heartwarming. All of the love and support of each other as hurting humans that was felt in the room, and the coming together to bring us strength. I don’t remember that happening before,” she shared.
Shortly before the program ended, this writer encountered a weeping female who had made her way out to the lobby. “Do you need a hug?” I asked. She nodded yes, and accepted my enveloping embrace as I wiped a tear from my own eye.
As the crowd dispersed afterward, senior Gabby Henrikson commented “This was tough.”
Former Albion city councilperson and College faculty member Dr. Andrew French later remarked that getting to see 1500 people mourn was a “very powerful opportunity. I think it started us all on the path students, faculty, and the community healing.”
Not long after Zach’s tragic death occured, the Albion Department of Public Safety and media outlets in the vicinity of Albion had quickly released information about the accident, but in those first reports, Zachary Winston’s name was withheld pending notification of his family. The Detroit Free Press was the first to release a story which included Zachary’s name, but the headline on the article framed the story in connection to revered Michigan State University basketball All-American point guard, Cassius Winston, Zach’s older brother. The Free Press later re-phrased the headline.
Zachary, a University of Detroit Jesuit High graduate, was a sophomore on the Division III Albion men’s basketball team along with his younger brother, Khy. Ironically, the Albion Britons had played against Cassius and MSU in an exhibition game on Oct. 29, but Zachary wasn’t able to play due to a torn hamstring. Zachary was cleared to play the next week, however, and in the Briton’s game on Nov. 8 he scored three points, two assists and two steals in 15 minutes. Despite that, the Britons lost 71-52 to Mount Union.
Then November 9 happened.
The afternoon after Zachary’s death, President Mauri Ditzler sent an email to the Albion College community:
“As a community, our hearts are broken today as we share the news of the passing of one of our students, Zachary Winston. Zach was a finance major, a student in the Gerstacker Institute for Business and Management, and member of the Albion College men’s basketball team. Beyond that, he was an extremely charismatic young man with an infectious smile. Zach was a recognized leader who was well known across every facet of our campus. He was a fantastic student with a world of potential before him. He was deeply loved and will be deeply missed… Our hearts go out to his brothers, Khy, [a student athlete as well] who is a freshman at Albion, and Cassius, who is a senior at Michigan State University, his parents and his extended family.”
Cassius Winston was scheduled to play in an MSU game against Binghamton less than 24 hours after his brother’s death. The Free Press coverage fueled speculation that he might not participate in the game, and other media outlets – including Sports Illustrated – picked up the story.
MSU head coach Tom Izzo had left it up to Cassius whether he would feel like playing, making it clear that he could pull out of the starting lineup at the last minute.
“Our hearts are filled with sorrow for the Winston family,” Izzo, dressed in a purple sport coat as an homage to Zachary’s Albion College team, said in statements before and after the game. “Their pain over the sudden loss of Zachary is unimaginable…Cassius, his brothers are the world to him. I’ve never seen a kid over my years that was as close with his brothers.”
Indeed, with their grieving father in the audience, Cassius’s brother Khy was at his side as the team observed a moment of silence, and when he finished the game in which he’d helped the Spartans to a 101-47 win, with 17 points and 11 assists. Zachary’s nickname “Smoothie” written on the side of his court shoes, Cassius received a standing ovation from the home crowd and heartfelt hugs from the entire MSU bench.
In an early morning Instagram post written to his brother after his death, Cassius poured his heart out: “I love you bro, w everything I have in my entire body. I love you so much, if I could carry yo pain I would wear it on my shoulders just to see you happy and wouldn’t think twice. I understand it was to much, I understand I really do and yo story won’t end here. I can promise you that, the next time I run into someone in your situation ima save them, cause that’s wha you would want me to do. I wish it was a term that goes deeper then brother, cause that’s what’s you are to me, 1/3 of my heart. And I’m struggling because there is nothing that can replace that Smoothie. I need you, I miss you. But I’m so proud of you, bro you fought every demon w everything you had in you. You went to war w yourself every single day not knowing if you could win that battle. And you won time after time. You stood tall and you let your family love you, you gave me everything I asked for, just one day you didn’t have enough strength.”
Zach’s family, his friends, his teammates, his classmates – they’re all reeling right now from the feelings that they may have left him down, the if-only’s and what-if’s. In an interview last spring with the Albion Pleiad, Zach Winston said he came to Albion College because it felt like home during his official campus visit.
“It was the best thing in the world to do,” he said at the time. “Everybody looks like a family, and it was a campus that felt like a second home to me.”
But then, last April, Zachary Winston and his Albion roommate Milton “M.J.” Barnes, who are both African-American, reported to Albion College Campus Safety that they were victims of racial harassment and that since the prior December, racist messages and swastikas had been left on the whiteboard outside the door of their dorm room. On April 6, a cardboard box was left propped in front of their door with the letters “KKK” written on it. And Winston felt the family atmosphere tenfold that week, when members of the Albion College community organized a unity demonstration in response to the racist graffiti. (Campus Safety Director Ken Snyder reports currently that “the person who wrote on Zach and M.J.’s board last spring was caught and held responsible on campus. There were no criminal charges brought.”)
In a tweet he sent at the time, Zach had this to say: “So many of you may or may not know, but my roommate and I have been racially targeted (in a very cowardly way) all semester. Today I was inspired to never stay silent again. Thank you to the Albion community for supporting us through this.”
We can only speculate about Zachary Winston perhaps having gone silent again, in spite of his best intentions. But his tragic death does scream ‘Get help if you’re suffering.’
Ironically, just five weeks ago, Valarie Cunningham, MSW, LMSW, delivered a lecture at Albion College on breaking the stigma of African-American mental health. She explained that according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African-American adults are 20% more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult whites, and that percentage increases with African-Americans living in poverty. That higher incidence, Cunningham explained, was due to post-traumatic stress on our African-American population caused by such things as slavery, Reconstruction, Black Codes, Jim Crow Laws and segregation.
The resulting stigma, Cunningham said, works to prevent African-Americans from seeking mental health services because that may be perceived as inappropriate conversation amongst their family and friends, and might make them “seem crazy.” It is also difficult for members of the African-American community to agree to be medicated – even when that medication could be a crucial piece of their treatment.
Cunningham stressed the importance of seeking out culturally competent professional mental health counselors. And although it is often difficult to find counselors who are people of color, she concedes, “African Americans need to seek help regardless of whether or not a counselor looks like them, because, cultural competency is not based on race and can be learned through good training.” It was her opinion that Albion College is sensitive to and continues to work on acquiring mental health professionals to care for diverse student body.
Vivian Davis told this writer that she would like to see a way developed for the local Albion community to help support the College’s students. “We used to have a mentor system where we paired up each student with an Albion resident, and I plan to encourage Dr. Ditzler and community leaders like Harry Bonner to bring that to life again so we can show the college students our love and support. The College has certainly been showing its support for the Albion community lately. Now Albion needs to support the College.”
There is no doubt that our society has come a long way and still has a long way to go when it comes to talking about, treating, assisting with, and empathizing with both depression and suicide. People are more willing to talk about it, doctors are more willing and able to treat it, and popular culture – particularly television and movies – includes therapy, depression, mental health, and the problems, stigmas, treatment, and reality of the same much more frequently.
Depression tells you that you’re alone and unlovable. But you are not alone, and you are loved. Zachary Winston’s vigil showed us that. The past can’t be changed, and the future isn’t here yet. Instead, we must find peace in this moment, because the present is all we ever really have.
Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255)