It began as a trickle, teenagers walking mostly in pairs, chatting away as they casually filed onto Walter A. Phillips Field.
Would there be enough bodies to line the giant heart — stretching sideline to sideline, roughly 50 yards from top to bottom — that was painted on the field the day before? It was a little chilly, after all. Perhaps they didn’t believe it was worth the effort.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, maybe not that many people will come,' ” Ashland High senior Alli Haynes said.
But then the trickle turned into a steady stream and finally a torrent, as high school students and teachers of all shapes and sizes and backgrounds gathered Tuesday morning for a common cause — to send a colossal shout-out, Generation-Z style, to the 17-year-old girl known as “Moose,” Hannah Thomas-Garner, who has been missing since Nov. 30.
“The fact of the matter is that one of our own is missing,” AHS Principal Michelle Zundel said, “and we want every member of our community to know that they matter and that we recognize and notice when they’re gone.”
So an estimated 600 students and faculty poured onto the field Tuesday to form the heart, and at the center five giant placards spelling out “M-O-O-S-E” were held up to complete the photo-op. At the base of the heart stood Ashland School District Superintendent Jay Hummel, and somewhere else in the fray Athletic Director Karl Kemper squeezed in, shrugging off a bout with the flu in order to do so.
Television and print media were invited to cover the event. The hope is that a story, photo, video clip, Facebook post, Tweet, something will eventually find its way to Thomas-Garner, wherever she may be. That’s certainly what Thomas-Garner’s mom, Jamie Daugherty, is hoping for. Daugherty watched from the Phillips Field stands as the heart slowly took shape, hugging well-wishers and wiping away tears.
“It’s pretty overwhelming that the school and the kids care so much,” she said afterward. “When you’re a mother, you think your kid is wonderful, but to see other people think the same thing, too, is pretty amazing.”
Daugherty said her faith has helped her cope.
“I pray for her every day and every time my phone rings I’m hoping it’s her,” she said.
Zundel said Tuesday’s heart-shaped message to Thomas-Garner, whose disappearance is still considered a runaway situation by the Ashland Police Department, was a collaborative effort. A handful of students and AHS art teacher and leadership adviser Sam Scharf arrived about a half-hour early Tuesday and helped organize the crowd as they slowly built up the heart.
Many of the organizers considered themselves close friends of Thomas-Garner, an honors student who took advanced placement psychology and anatomy-physiology classes.
“She was just a beautiful, upright, lovely lady that I loved hanging out with,” AHS senior Lindsay Quillen said. “She was one of my really good friends. Knowing that she’s gone and missing really scares me. I really hope she’s OK. I have cried and I have had my own sorrows for her, and doing this is something that’s bringing me happiness and making me feel a lot better. I’m hoping that she will see that and realize that people love her and people want her back, and people care for her.”
Haynes said she also misses Thomas-Garner.
“Me and her liked to hang out … a lot,” Haynes said. “We talked a lot. She was in my AP psych class, so we bonded a lot over that stuff. She was very outgoing and unique. I think those are the best words to describe her. I didn’t know anyone else like her.”
Thomas-Garner was last seen at a party off Dead Indian Memorial Road on Nov. 30. Her car was later found abandoned and bashed up near a freeway exit in Mt. Shasta. A motorist told police he gave a ride to a hitchhiker matching Thomas-Garner’s description the next morning, dropping her off at Dunsmuir.
Ashland Deputy Police Chief Tighe O’Meara told a crowd of concerned citizens who showed up at the department headquarters Dec. 29 that the evidence indicates Thomas-Garner had planned to run away to California and followed through.
Eight weeks later, Thomas-Garner’s disappearance is still a mystery.
“I think it’s on everybody’s mind,” Scharf said. “Everbody’s concerned about her safety, and it’s been a lot of silence for a while now, and so we’re just trying to see what we can send out in the world. Who knows, maybe somebody will see it who has seen her. I think more than anything it’s a chance to send out some Grizzly spirit and some love in her direction, wherever that may be — just some solidarity to say, hey, somebody’s missing and we want to show that we care.”
“We work really hard to help every one of our students be connected in some way, and our community is extremely supportive of extracurricular activities so that everyone can be engaged and have a sense of belonging,” she said. “But we’re not able to control every factor. And I think that’s one of the hardest things about this situation.”
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org.