Memorial Scholarship Ends Era, Leaves Legacy

Twenty-two minutes after your clock struck midnight it unknowingly marked the 26th anniversary of an excruciating date Mary Forbes wishes she could forget: June 1, 1985.

That’s the day Forbes’ youngest child, 17-year-old Jennifer Forbes, died in a head-on crash. It was caused by a drunk driver whose car was traveling south in the north-bound lane on Highway 273 in Redding after leaving a bar called the Oak Grove Club.

Forbes described her daughter Jennifer as an honor student and a gifted athlete and musician, someone who loved school. Forbes added that her daughter was compassionate, humble, had a delightful sense of humor and couldn’t tolerate “jerks” of any kind. She adored nature and people.

Even as a little girl with blond hair, dimples and a contagious smile, Jennifer expressed her sincere love for animals and the outdoors. By the time she reached high school, Jennifer had set her sights on attending Humboldt State University with the goal of becoming a park ranger.

Jennifer Forbes in first grade.

The door to Jennifer’s bright future slammed shut in 1985, the week before Shasta High School finals. Jennifer, just weeks from becoming a senior, was behind the wheel the night she drove herself, a girlfriend and the friend’s younger brother home from a late movie.

The drunk driver’s head-on collision killed Jennifer and 16-year-old Christie McPherson, Jennifer’s friend and Westwood Manor neighbor. McPherson’s younger brother, Michael, who was sitting in the back seat, was severly injured.

The drunk driver, Cynthia Jean George, then 30, survived the crash. She was convicted of two counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and felony drunk driving. She had a blood alcohol level of .34 percent.

Just a few months after Jennifer died, Forbes, though still nearly incapicitated by grief, created a scholarship in her daughter’s name with money donated in lieu of flowers, at the family’s request. Forbes also deposited insurance money related to the crash into the scholarship. Forbes was single-minded in her desire to set up the scholarship in time for someone in Jennifer’s graduating class to be among the first recipients.

The original fund of more than $11,000 expanded nicely in an interest-bearing account. Wth it grew Forbes’ goal to give one or two students each as much as $500 annually in Jennifer’s memory for as long as the money held out.

“Don’t ask me how I did it, but somehow, even in my shock, I just knew I had to do it,” Forbes said recently as she flipped through decades of scrapbooks filled with newspaper clipplings and students’ thank-you letters.

“Man oh man, that first award ceremony was hard, because it was Jennifer’s graduating class. You know, Jennifer was an honor student. She would have been receiving awards.”

Each spring for the next quarter-century, Forbes would spend hours reading student applications on her quest for two students who best exemplified her daughter’s traits. She’d consult with teachers, counselors and fellow students to seek the most worthy recipients. Usually the recipients were a boy and a girl. One year a set of twins won the scholarships.

“I would just agonize over the whole process,” Forbest said with a small laugh. “I went through college on scholarships, and I’ve always been really, really grateful. Right after Jennifer died, having a scholarship in her name was something I knew I wanted to do, to help kids with school. It’s been a good thing. It’s also kept my daughter’s name alive.”

Forbes said that all but three of the 52 scholarship recipients have sent her thank-you notes. And she’s kept every one.

“The notes, they’re just so heartwarming,” Forbes said. “They’d say things like they were so honored to be recognized as as having Jennifer’s qualities.”

Over the years, Forbes’ remaining children, Kathy and Andy, accompanied her to the awards ceremonies, sometimes coming on stage with their mother, other times providing moral support from the audience. In time, after Kathy married and had children of her own, sometimes Forbes’ grandchildren, Dillon and Danna, joined Forbes on stage to help present the award named for a deceased, beloved aunt they’d never met, but had heard plenty about.

About four years ago, Forbes realized that the scholarship money was dwindling to a point where she had to make a decision: either reduce the scholarship amounts and extend the remaining award years, or continue giving a pair of $500 scholarships each year, and use it up quickly.

Forbes discussed the situation with her family, and they agreed it best to allow the scholarship to end in 2011, the same year that Forbes’ granddaughter Danna Draper – Kathy’s daughter – would graduate from Shasta High School.

“It’s always emotional to get up on stage and give out the scholarships,” Forbes said. “But this year is especially difficult.”

The day Forbes had dreaded arrived on May 18 at the Shasta High School Awards ceremony. She approached the lecturn accompanied by her son, Andy Forbes. The auditorium’s crowd fell to a hush as Forbes described her daughter, Jennifer Forbes, whose promising life ended at 17 because of a drunk driver.

Forbes spoke of the bittersweet quality of the 2011 awards night, because it was the last time she’d be presenting  scholarships. When Forbes announced the final recipients of the Jennifer Forbes Memorial Scholarship, it was as if the 26-year process had come full circle to the most ideal, fitting conclusion.

Mary Forbes, left, presented the final Jennifer Forbes Memorial Scholarships to Jackson Murphy, 17, center, and Danna Draper, 18, Forbes' granddaughter.

Seventeen-year-old Jackson Murphy, who’d grown up knowing the Forbes family, living in the same neighborhood and being good friends with Kathy’s children, received the first scholarship of $500.

The second recipient was 18-year-old Danna Draper, Mary Forbes’ granddaughter, whom, incidentally, had been told much of her life that she bore some resemblance to her Aunt Jennifer, who died years before Danna’s birth.

“I was really happy and excited to receive it,” Danna said of her aunt’s namesake scholarship. “I kinda wasn’t expecting it, but I guess I should have. It feels kind of sad for me, too. Seeing my uncle, mom and dad near tears made me want to cry, too.”

Ever since June of 1986, 52 Shasta High School students have received the Jennifer Forbes Memorial Scholarship, at a combined total of more than $20,000.

If Jennifer Forbes were alive today, she would be 43 years old.

And a terrific park ranger.

Independent online journalist Doni Greenberg founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Greenberg was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate, Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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