By LESLIE COLLINS
September 18, 2013
With a solemn expression, eight-year-old Atticus Straley led the way, carrying a silver urn filled with his friend’s ashes. Gently, he set the urn down beside Ella’s gravestone and kneeled for a moment, his mother beside him. Behind him, more than 100 people had gathered to say their good-byes.
Atticus slowly stood and gathered next to the youngsters who attended the Great Plains SPCA summer camp. They stood in solidarity, wearing their “Young Heros for Pets” T-shirts. As the musicians began to strum their guitars, the children began to sing, “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music.
“Do, a deer, a female deer. Re, a drop of golden sun…”
Their small voices overpowered the crowd and the grown-ups began to sniffle, and some began to cry.
For many, Ella wasn’t simply a deer. She was a best friend, a symbol of innocence in a broken world.
“She was like one of our family,” said Pat Faris of Johnson County, Kan.
In 2011, Ella was born over Memorial Day weekend on the grounds of historic Elmwood Cemetery, 4900 E. Truman Rd. She became an orphan when her mother ventured onto Truman Road and was struck by a vehicle. Ella, however, never left the cemetery grounds.
She roamed among the gravestones and snacked from the branches of the cemetery’s trees. Elmwood Cemetery became her home and it wasn’t uncommon for Ella to stand near mourners during a funeral or greet a wedding party near the cemetery chapel.
“Some people she would come right up to,” said John Weilert, president of the Elmwood Board of Trustees. “I remember one funeral there was a military honor guard present and she walked right up to the military honor guard and all the soldiers got to pet her. That was special for them. The family was very overwhelmed.”
When the community learned a 19-year-old hopped the Elmwood Cemetery fence and fatally shot Ella with a handgun in August, they were heartbroken and angry.
“I was just devastated. She was like a child to me,” said Rosalie McGhee who lives on Kansas City’s east side. “The person that took her life is just mindless. I just hope there’s a purpose in everything, but it’s really hard to understand this.”
“It shouldn’t have happened this way,” Faris said with a sniffle as tears filled her eyes. “I’m not really that emotional of a person, but she was really special.”
Donning a “Remember Ella” T-shirt, she stood by the deer’s memorial, looking down.
For a year, Faris and her husband visited Ella in the cemetery about every two months.
“I was planning on every week this next year and it was taken away from me by a cruel person,” Faris said. “She was so gentle. I came over here and talked to her for hours. It was a trip over here, but it was worth it.”
When the children finished singing, Sharon Sperow felt moved to speak.
“She’s going to be so dearly missed by so many people. She taught us what humanity really is. So, we thank you, Ella,” Sperow said.
One by one, attendees knelt down and touched the urn. Some laid down bouquets and cards. Others kissed their hand and touched the gravestone, which featured a photograph overlay of Ella and the stray dog that she became friends with. Frisbie Monuments of Independence, Mo., donated and designed the granite gravestone which reads: “Ella 2011-2013 ‘But ask the animals and they will teach you.'”
Weilert said this is his first funeral service for a deer and added that Elmwood received numerous requests from the public to host a memorial service.
“People came for a lot of different reasons,” Weilert said of the Sept. 14 memorial service. “I think Ella touched everyone in different ways. She was just a treasure. She was so special. She attended so many events and was always there for people.
“She made herself special to everyone and I think that’s what was nice. She made everyone feel special and that’s a rare talent, but she had it.”
Jamie Straley, the mother of Atticus and volunteer manager at the Great Plains SPCA Merriam campus, led the Young Heros for Pets summer camp and incorporated Ella into the curriculum.
“We talked about the innocence and miracle she was and how lucky we were to have such an experience in our city,” she said.
Straley showed videos and pictures of Ella to the youngsters, a product of Straley and Atticus’s regular visits with Ella. When Ella heard their vehicle pull up, she would slowly walk toward them and playfully leap around Atticus. Sometimes she would nuzzle him and she would always let him pet her.
“He was so gentle with her and in turn she was so gentle with him,” said. “She was magic. She was absolutely magic.”
“She was way braver than other deer,” Atticus said. “She had the most courage of any deer I’ve ever known. I can’t really stress to people about how special Ella was to me. She let me pet her. I actually got to hug her once. I want Ella to know that I love her and I’ll always remember her.”
Ella died the day before the last week of summer camp and the youngsters made sympathy cards for the Elmwood staff. The day of the memorial service, the cards were on full display outside of the chapel. One read, “Dear Elmwood, I am sooooo sorry about Ella. I bet she was a great friend! She will ALLWAYS live in your hearts.”
“This is a down on its luck neighborhood but it had such a magic about it in terms of Ella and her presence,” Straley said. “She represented everything this neighborhood could be, everything it dreams to be. She was the fight; she was the fight for this neighborhood’s comeback. For her to have left in the way she did was tragic, but the legacy she left behind is miraculous.”