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Abbie Jane Harper

Celebrating the life of an angel gone home

photoFormer Maryville High School three-sport athlete Abbie Harper skydives for the first time on a summer internship in South Africa in 2013.

Editor’s note: Words can’t express the sadness we felt upon learning of the death of Abbie Harper last November. When we learned Kenny and Leyanne Harper, Abbie’s parents, were endowing a scholarship at Maryville High School in her name, we sent word through a friend, Susan Stout, and asked if the Harpers would meet with us and let us tell Abbie’s story. The following is the first of two installments of a life lived bigger than any of us had any idea.

By Stefan Cooper
Blount Press Row

The skydiving isn’t surprising.

Abbie Jane Harper April 16, 1990-Nov. 14, 2013

Abbie Jane Harper
April 16, 1990 — Nov. 14, 2013

Abbie Jane Harper lived life at full power. She had that rare ability to just go for it, in a way many of the rest of us will never know.

“She was fearless,” Kenny Harper, Abbie’s father, said. “She went to South Africa without knowing a soul.”

Abbie stepped out of that plane and into the sky while on an internship in Johannesburg the summer of 2013. She left us a detailed and perfectly hysterical account of what it was like.

“She didn’t tell me until she’d done it,” Leyanne Harper, Abbie’s mom, said.

We’ll share some of Abbie’s leap of faith with you shortly.

A University of Chicago law student, Abbie was a prolific writer.

Kenny and Leyanne brought along something else their daughter had written that summer when we met last week. Abbie’s internship hadn’t been one of going through the motions. It was scary big what she was doing over there.

We’ll share some of that with you as well.

Taken together, it paints the portrait of a glorious, wonderful soul untouched by her tragic passing.

Diagnosed with Type 1 or juvenile diabetes during her junior year at Maryville High School in 2007, Abbie, 23, died in her Chicago apartment last November after slipping into diabetic ketoacidosis. Beyond the pain, there’s the why?

Abbie knew how to take care of herself. Something just isn’t right.

We’ll know the answers one day. For now, we humbly offer you this celebration of her life in her words.

Kenny, Leyanne, your daughter was special. We can never know your pain, but we hurt for you just the same.

If it helps, know that Abbie is an angel gone home. We will miss her for the rest of our lives. We will always consider her one of our fondest memories of our time on this planet. Here are her words:

Volleyball was one of three sports Abbie lettered in each of her four years at Maryville.

Abbie was a three-sport letterman each of her four seasons at Maryville.

“We embarked on the 30-minute ride (that’s how long it took this plane to get to an altitude of two miles), and at first, I was totally fine. Nice, pleasant ride, beautiful surroundings – I’m happy. But the plane kept getting higher, and pretty soon I couldn’t make out anything on the ground.

“I have a flash of ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ but then I’d remind myself – ‘This is a business. These guys do this twenty times a day. If bad things happened, the business wouldn’t be in business anymore.’

“As we got higher, my calming thoughts became less rational.”

Most of us – yours truly included – would have reached that point before the plane left the ground.

First-time jumpers seldom make the leap by themselves, and it was no different with Abbie. A close friend, Caroline, was also making the jump, both of them cinched tightly to the front of an experienced skydiver from the company.

Abbie would jump with a diver named Blake, who was about to learn the former softball second baseman/volleyball setter/basketball shooting guard wasn’t the kind to kid around when something this serious was at stake.

Abbie continues:

“It didn’t help that our leaders had these stock phrases they spouted off in response to any question Caroline or I asked. They were clearly trying to be funny, to ease the tension or fear most amateur skydivers felt before jumping, but I just wanted my questions answered.

“Like when I asked Blake how long he’d been doing this, and he said, ‘Today’s my first day.’”

Wrong answer.

“Then he looked at me with an anticipatory smile, as if I would start freaking out/cracking up at any second. Instead, I felt like telling him that I didn’t know what kind of clientele he normally catered to, but … ”

Uh-oh. This would be a really good time for Blake to slow his roll. Abbie was as big a cut up as you’ll ever meet, but this wasn’t the time for jokes. It probably wasn’t long before Blake felt the same way.

“I would then force an obligatory chuckle,” Abbie writes, “and ask my question again.”

There was still time to get out of this. This wasn’t the military; they can’t make you jump.

Two miles up is like 10,000-plus feet. The wind at that altitude must be crazy loud. Once committed, though, Abbie was never the kind to back down. Before long, the moment of truth was finally at hand. It was time to jump.

“When we got to the right altitude, one of the solo divers slid open the plastic door and put two hands on the outside edge of the plane. As he was doing this, the second solo diver who I still had my legs wrapped around started re-tying my Sperries making them almost unbearably tight. He turned around and smiled at me. ‘You’ll thank me later.’

Her freshman season in softball, Abbie got the game-winning hit to send the Lady Rebels to state.

Her freshman season in softball, Abbie got the game-winning hit to send the Lady Rebels to state.

“Just then, the first solo diver jumped out. No warning, no saying anything, no preparation. He just jumped. With him went my stomach.

“Though the rational side of my brain had a few worries on the ride up, the emotional side of my brain didn’t really engage until I saw that guy jump. Five seconds later, out went the second solo diver. Blake and I were next.”

It’s important to pause here for a moment. It’s here the other thing Abbie wrote about during that summer in South Africa – her work with the legal defense fund representing the families of the victims of the Marikana Massacre – begins to come into focus.

A hero isn’t someone who’s never afraid. We’re all afraid of something from time to time. A hero is someone who can look fear in the face, be scared senseless, and say, I’m coming on anyway.

Slowly, her knees surely shaking, her heart surely pounding, Abbie made her way to the door:

“We were now at the edge of the plane, and my feet were hanging out. ‘You might need to push me,’ I yelled at Blake. ‘Not a problem,’ he yelled back. The feeling at that moment was pure adrenaline-induced excitement. Blake told me to look to my left, lean my head back against him and smile at the camera he was holding in his left hand. I did and just then, he pushed us out.

“I screamed like a little girl, but smiled the whole time. It was insanely awesome. Quite possibly the best minute and a half of my life. Every logical thought, every other concern in my mind got left on the plane.

“Nothing could touch me. I alternated between laughing, screaming and shouting obscenities, but all were meant to express pure and unadulterated joy. I don’t think I’ve smiled that big since I was a little girl.”

Abbie and skydiving instructor Blake take in the decent.

Abbie and skydiving instructor Blake take in the decent.

Against that backdrop were the events of Aug. 16, 2012.

A year before Abbie’s trip, striking miners in the impoverished northern township of Marikana were making their way home from a rally. Police opened fire on the group with machine guns, killing 34, and wounding 80.

There were no arrests, no suspensions.

Ten months later, a young, intrepid law student from the University of Chicago touched down in South Africa.

Abbie Jane Harper was about to change the world.


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