On the evening of April 21, about 150 well-dressed students and faculty members gathered at the University of St. Thomas for the first Student Leadership Banquet, the brainchild of newly hired director of student activities Kristie Gerber.
The group at the Crooker Center enjoyed an elegant buffet and a chorus of a cappella singers doing doo-wop covers. Then came the student award presentations. When the first Marsha A. Wooldridge Citizenship Award was announced, the crowd quickly grew still. Marsha, a popular student on the close-knit campus and vice president of the student government association, had died in a car accident last October.
"It was loud and upbeat, and then it got absolutely silent," remembers Marion Maendel, a reporter for the Cauldron, the school newspaper. "I could hear people crying."
Before naming the winner, Gerber made a point of saying that the honoree had been personally selected by Marsha's family. Gerber went on to announce that the Wooldridges were unable to attend the banquet because of scheduling conflicts.
The crowd applauded as senior Meredith Stasny picked up her prize. "People were very touched to hear the family had picked the recipient," says Maendel.
Other people were merely confused by Gerber's message. They were at the banquet, and they were friends of the Wooldridges, and they knew that the family had never mentioned anything about the award or the event.
Marsha's mother, Patti Wooldridge, tells of receiving calls from those students during the ceremony. "Why aren't you here?" she remembers them saying. "They're giving out an award in Marsha's name."
"We knew nothing of the award at all," Wooldridge says, adding that she would've loved to have attended.
Two days later an upset Wooldridge called Cauldron reporter Maendel to ask if the paper would publish a letter to the editor from her about the incident. Staff members say they decided to write an article instead, so Gerber could comment as well.
But administrators heard about the upcoming piece and got angry. Cauldron editor Meghan Foley says Jack Hank, vice president of student affairs, phoned her.
"He told me that I personally would ruin Marsha's memory" by running the story, says Foley, who had been close to Wooldridge. "It was horrible. For Jack to use the fact that he knew we were friends; it felt really underhanded." Foley says Hank also refused to acknowledge her when she saw him at graduation on May 10.
Other administrators and students also lobbied the paper to kill the story, arguing that it would make a bad situation worse.
Maendel says she was "surprised by the vehemence" but that "it's important that the school know, and the students and administration know, that we're here to play the watchdog."
It's not the first time a story of Maendel's has caused a stir on campus. She got her start writing for The Houston Catholic Worker while living and working at Casa Juan Diego, a social services agency. During the last school year she won two Texas Intercollegiate Press Association awards. Those came for an article that exposed the school's practice of inflating enrollment figures, and for a story that argued school janitors were chronically underpaid. Nicole Cásarez, a longtime Cauldron adviser and communications professor, said the university administration later agreed to re-examine the school's bid with the janitorial contractors.
"It's a newspaper; it's not a PR newsletter for the school," argues Cásarez. "I'm proud of my students. I think they're good journalists."
The Cauldron also ran an unsigned editorial, authored by Foley, that angrily challenged the administration's efforts to try to conceal the award incident. Gerber had known at the time of the banquet that her statements were untrue.
"It seems so wrong that people would want to cover up, brush aside or completely overlook the fact that Gerber lied," wrote Foley. "What Gerber did was wrong. Ignoring the story will not change that."
Gerber, who arrived at UST this year from a similar position at Simmons College in Boston, admitted in the Cauldron article only that she had made a mistake. "I guess maybe I spoke inadvertently," she said. She also insisted she had left numerous messages for Marsha's mother. Gerber would not return calls for this story.
Hank, Gerber's supervisor, says Gerber has apologized to him and that no punishment is anticipated for her actions. He says the award was never meant to be selected by Marsha's family but was chosen by a committee of students.
"Kristie would not do anything to hurt anyone," says Hank, adding that Gerber had been the liaison between the university and the family since Marsha's death.
Hank says Wooldridge called him after the event to express her frustration at not having been invited, then admitted to him she got upset upon hearing Gerber's voice and thus hung up on her.
"The whole thing is very strange to me," says Hank.
Patti Wooldridge says that's yet another false statement by a St. Thomas official.
"I told him I was afraid she hadn't called me because the last time she had called me I had started crying," explains Wooldridge.
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Marsha, an environmental studies and political science major, was an activist with the Green Party as well as a student body leader.
She died from head injuries October 21 after the car she was riding in veered off the road and slammed into a tree near Smithville. Marsha, who was sleeping in the backseat, was returning with two UST students from an Ani DiFranco concert in Austin. Her mother said a storm at the time prevented a LifeFlight helicopter from arriving until it was too late. Marsha's companions suffered only minor injuries.
Wooldridge says UST students helped organize a memorial for her daughter last week to make up for the fact that she was not invited to the banquet. She says she is also proud of the Cauldron for running the story.
"I'm not about making waves," she says. "But my daughter was the vice president of student affairs, a Green Party Ralph Nader tree-hugger, and she would be so proud of us all."