I found out from Holly Howard Friday afternoon that a group of girls were gonna smack a softball around under the lights at Central Lee High School following senior night for the Lady Hawks.
Howard said she was teammates with Amanda Jo Ellison, who was killed tragically on the morning of July 10, 2000. The teammates were getting together for the first time in eight years to honor their fallen teammate. Something they had done several times since her death.
Ellison was driving a 1989 Dodge Spirit on Hwy 218, north of the Salem Stub, when the vehicle collided head-on with a pick up truck driven by Jean Frueh, then 46, from Donnellson.
Ellison was pronounced dead at the scene.
Writing those words are gut-wrenching. We know how Amanda’s mother Mary Ellison feels. I thought hard about going out to the memorial game, but the Lady Hawks were playing Fort Madison in Central Lee’s regular season finale. After some deliberation, I decided to head out to the games.
On the way out, an SUV rolled on West Point Road and AirEvac was on the scene. Early investigation indicates the victim wasn’t seat-belted and was ejected from the vehicle. A somber irony on the day’s events.
After the Lady Hawks swept the doubleheader, I was walking over to interview Bloodhound Dalyn Wondra, who had homered in the second game. I was met on the way by two different Central Lee parents who offered condolences for the loss of our 20-year-old daughter earlier this year.
I didn’t know who they were. But they knew me… and our tragedy. I was moved by the kindness of these strangers.
But as I rounded the outfield fence working my way back to conduct a few more interviews about the official game, and the game in Ellison’s honor, I looked on the field to see a group picture being taken and noticed the scoreboard was still on.
It said the score was 7 to 7 in the 7th inning. That wasn’t the score of either of the softball games, but Howard said it was in honor of Ellison, who wore number 7.
“She was our friend. She was our catcher and she was super in softball,” Howard said. “That was like hand-in-hand, Amanda and softball.”
Ellison’s accident happened at the end of the 2020 regular season – Amanda’s junior year with the Lady Hawks. Mary Ellison said there was a game that night 20 years ago that was postponed for the girls to grieve. And now in way they still grieve.
“I think it’s wonderful for them to remember her,” Ellison said. “It’s been 20 years and I remember they had a ballgame that night that they canceled into the following week. And then that was the scoreboard in the 7th inning of that district game. The score was 7 to 7.”
Ellison sat smiling and laughing behind the home plate fence in the bleachers watching as current assistant coach Tony Arrowood took a couple swings from the 2000 team donned in black, gold, and white t-shirts with the AJE initials in a softball emblem.
“It’s both painful and enjoyable,” Ellison said. “They know that I love these girls and that they’ve kept her in their memory. But it’s hard to watch, too because she’s not out there.”
Part of the Amanda’s memorial donations went to help bring lights to the softball field – another way for the Lady Hawks to feel that Amanda is always around them.
“When we were in high school. she was all softball, softball, softball. We wanted lights when we were in school and we tried to raise money through fundraisers, but her memorial was a big part of getting these lights in place here,” Howard said.
The last time the group got together to play was in 2012, but she said the ladies wanted to get together again because this was the 20th anniversary of her death.
“It’s just kind of away to keep her memory alive and keep us all connected still. It’s pretty devastating when you lose someone that young.”
Ellison said her daughter got a varsity letter as an eighth grader and was looking forward to getting that fifth varsity bar for her jacket.
“She wanted those five bars so bad on her jacket and just didn’t quite get to the last one,” Ellison said.
Central Lee Superintendent Dr. Andy Crozier said Sunday, that if Amanda didn’t get that bar, “I think we can make that happen.”
It’s those little things that bring smiles – and tears – and keep memories alive. There’s nothing more important.
I’m not overly religious but I just don’t know if it can be considered a plan of God to take young people from us. Sometimes I imagine he weeps as we do at the tragedy and disease that are consequences of the creation.
What I do know is I found myself in tears in my SUV before heading home as I thought about Mary Ellison… and Amanda… and then Kelsey and my wife and the two Central Lee parents that patted my shoulder that night.
A somber day indeed.
Chuck Vandenberg is the editor and co-founder of Pen City Current and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org