In December 2004, when a secretary at Shasta Middle School was opening contributions to the school’s Tree of Giving campaign earlier this month, one struck her as odd.
The check was for $17.04. A note with the check tried to explain it. But halfway through, the secretary stopped reading. The tears made the words too blurry.
The story begins in 1991 when Shasta teacher Zall Villanueva, who began the school’s annual drive to contribute to Valley River’s yearly fund-raising event, was teaching at Wyatt School outside Harrisburg. In his fifth-grade class, he had a student named Chase Whitham.
Chase, whose family owned a blueberry farm near the school, was the self-appointed class clown. He was the kid who once ate a peanut butter and jelly and worm sandwich – for a quarter. Who, while on recess one Halloween, had a student rush to get “Mr. V” and report that Chase had hurt himself.
“I ran out and there he was, blood on his face – fake blood, as it turned out,” Villanueva says, chuckling.
Chase was one of those kids who’d be driving Villanueva nuts one minute, then making him laugh the next. True, nobody spent more time after school that year than Chase. But it’s also true that, when Villanueva challenged the class to get involved in Valley River’s Tree of Joy project, Chase led his team through the mall to buy a Christmas present for a needy child with the $25 he and other team members had raised by mowing lawns and washing cars.
“He was a good-hearted kid,” Villanueva says.
“Mr. V was always trying to get the kids involved in something, to think of others,” says Laurie Whitham, Chase’s mother.
At the eighth-grade graduation ceremony, Chase thanked Mr. V for teaching him – and putting up with him.
Chase went off to high school, first at Junction City High, then at Marist. Villanueva later left Wyatt for Shasta. The two saw each other here and there.
Then, a few years ago, Villanueva heard that Chase had joined the Army, that he was headed for Iraq. He sent Chase postcards.
Chase, 21, was part of the Stryker Brigade in Mosul, Iraq. He sprinkled his service with touches of levity, was rarely without a smile and didn’t forget Mr. V’s challenge to think of others.
“His buddies told me there was one very quiet, withdrawn soldier who didn’t speak much English because he was Laotian,” Laurie Whitham says. “The guys called him `D.D.’ Chase pulled him out of his shell. Got him interested in lifting weights, making him feel included. And he opened up and started speaking more.”
Then it happened.
Last May 8, after a handful of hot, tired soldiers from the Stryker Brigade slipped into a murky swimming pool in Mosul, an electrical jolt suddenly shot through the water. Stunned soldiers crawled out. It was D.D. who noticed that Chase was missing. He jumped back in to save his pal.
Too late. A pump had shorted out, sending an electrical current through a water pipe near Chase. D.D. survived. Chase did not.
After her son’s death, Laurie Whitham met his Army buddies at Fort Lewis, Wash., when they returned from Iraq.
“D.D. said Chase had been like a brother to him,” she says. “He risked his own life to try and save my son.”
Haunted in the house by memories of Chase, she and her family moved from Harrisburg to Salem. And, meanwhile, she dealt with the utilitarian chores, such as paying off Chase’s pickup and closing his bank accounts.
His checking balance was $17.04.
It only seemed right, Laurie figured, to send it to Mr. V and what’s now called the Tree of Giving. It’s what Chase would have wanted.
And so, taking out a pen, a mother gave away all her son had left to give.
Note: This column originally ran in The Register-Guard.