She was a strong and beautiful person, positive and forgiving.
Rarely seen without a smile, she loved to dance, to sit outside Neptune North and to make people happy.
Yellow was her favorite color, matching the shine of her soul and reflected in the sunflower tattoo she so proudly displayed to friends old and new.
Many of those new friends – young people she had met only a few months before – gathered Tuesday evening on the stage of the Duke Ellington Ballroom to honor Keller. They tearfully clutched yellow flowers as they bolstered one another, physically and emotionally.
“In truth, a family is what you make of it,” Neptune resident Brooke Bocek said. “As friends of Toni, we have grown closer together. We hold each other up.”
More than 1,000 people filled the ballroom to honor the 18-year-old freshman who disappeared Oct. 14.
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William Goldenberg, a Distinguished Teaching Professor in the School of Music, played quiet hymns on the grand piano as the crowd gathered. His final selection: “God Will Take Care of You.”
Candles soon brought a warm glow and a comfortable aroma to the room as the lights above dimmed.
Jill Thomas, president of Huskies United, found meaning in the day’s strong winds.
“Sometimes in life, we encounter significant storms,” she said, “that can easily blow us off our course.”
But lives can withstand the turbulence through the anchors of friends and loved ones, Thomas said. “A community draws strength when it stands together,” she said. “In time, these winds will calm.”
Mary Tarling, a cousin of Keller’s, brought words of reassurance from the family.
Keller’s father has read every single card and banner delivered to him, she said, “and to every single message, he sends a kiss.” Tarling also expressed the desire to hug everyone in the room, adding that maybe she would try.
“When I look out at all this, I am as overwhelmed as we have been throughout all this. We see you, we hear you and we feel you. We can’t ever express how much love we’ve felt,” she said.
“It’s OK to be sad. That shows the love you have for her, and the love you have for each other, and that’s a magnificent thing. There’s a piece of Toni in every single one of you, and that’s why you’re here,” she said. “Toni’s OK, OK? And we’ll be OK, too.”
The gathered Huskies also heard the poem “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” read by Keller’s friend Jasmine Robinson.
Among its stanzas: “If I knew it would be the last time, I could spare an extra minute or two/to stop and say, ‘I love you,’ instead of assuming you would know I do … but just in case I might be wrong, and today is all I get/I’d like to say how much I love you and I hope we never forget … tomorrow is not promised to anyone, young or old alike/and today may be the last chance you get to hold your loved one tight.”
NIU President John Peters spoke last, saying that Keller quickly became known to her new classmates as “a dear friend, a joy to be around and a talented artist.”
Peters praised those friends for rallying “at the first indication she was missing.” And although the search for Keller “has not brought her back to us,” the president urged everyone to continue their communal search for understanding and peace.
“When one Huskie goes missing, we all join together to find them. We remain united,” Peters said. “We must rely on the strong bond that unites the NIU family. We find comfort tonight in each other’s presence. Take care of one another. Look out for one another. Be kind to one another. Have confidence in one another.”
Following a moment of silence, the acoustic guitars of the Beatles jangled the familiar and beloved introduction to “Here Comes the Sun.”
Candles were lifted toward the ceiling throughout the ballroom.
No one left, or even lowered their flickering flames, while “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” played with its fitting lyrical reference to “the girl with the sun in her eyes.”
Finally, the crowd quietly made its way outside as Pink Floyd sang the words so many in the ballroom kept in their hearts and their prayers: “Wish You Were Here.”