By Katie Kull
On Monday, September 19, hundreds of cyclists, runners, and walkers departed from multiple locations in Athens, Georgia, to converge on the site of a tragedy that rocked the Sewanee and University of Georgia communities the previous week. On the side of Athena Drive, a white road bicycle covered in flowers, ribbons, and tributes from friends and family stands as a tribute to Ashley Block (C’13). She died on September 12, when she and two other cyclists were struck by a driver under the influence of prescription drugs. At just 25 years old, Ashley’s life and plans for the future were stolen from her, and the ripples from this event have been far-reaching.
A native of Johnson City, Tennessee, Block attended high school in Minnesota and came to Sewanee in 2009. Her friendly nature and enthusiasm for life led her to be active in many campus organizations, including the cross country team, the university orchestra, Arcadians, and Kappa Delta sorority. She graduated summa cum laude with honors in Ecology-Biodiversity as a Phi Beta Kappa and recipient of the Harry C. Yeatman biology award. After working for several years, Ashley began graduate school at the University of Georgia in the Integrated Conservation and Anthropology (ICON) program. When interviewed in the fall of 2015, Ashley said that her ideal job after the completion of her Ph.D. was to “teach at a university, especially to inspire up-andcoming scientists in the field to learn to communicate what they are researching, why it is important, and that
it is okay not to be funneled into a single field.”
Her drive for conservation and communication brought Ashley back to Sewanee this summer, where I had the great fortune of meeting her. We worked together in the Sewanee Herbarium for eight weeks, she on expanding her senior honors thesis about agricultural legacies at the King Farm and I on investigating biomass change in Franklin State Forest over the past forty years. It was barely a day into the summer when she discovered that I was also a member of Kappa Delta and an Arcadian, and with great excitement, she engaged me in conversations about the current state of these organizations and her experiences in both. It became sort of ritual to see her bounding through the door each day, bicycle helmet under her arm, hair wet from a morning swim, smiling and greeting us. She worried about whether I was getting enough sleep, if I had enough food, and why I was letting my fears hold me back from my goals. I knew the door to her home was open to me, and in those eight weeks Ashley transformed from a well-intentioned stranger to a dear friend and someone who truly embodied the phrase “Ecce quam bonum.”
Our summer ended with a three-day botanical conference in Savannah, Georgia. Despite Ashley’s major interest being anthropology, not botany, she was quick to attend lecture sessions about communication and found friends in every room. One evening, over whiskey in the hotel lounge, we talked about what we wanted to do with our lives and some of our far-flung dreams. Ashley encouraged me in everything, insisting that it was okay not to know exactly what I wanted to do and that it wasn’t actually that hard to train for a triathlon. We parted ways in Savannah on August 3 with a promise: I would come down to Athens, attend a UGA football game with her, and let her try to convince me to go there for graduate school. Now, looking back at our goodbye, I can’t remember if I hugged her. I hope that I did.
There are not many current students at Sewanee who knew Ashley Block. She graduated before our senior class arrived, and if we met her as prospective students, we probably don’t remember. However, the Sewanee community does not forget. The memorial service held in her honor in All Saint’s Chapel on September 18 was well-attended by faculty, alumni, and current members of Kappa Delta and the cross country team. Her life impacted many others, and her death has inspired many to get off their couches (me included) and go for a run, a bike ride, or a swim. In a sense, though she was taken from us far too soon, I believe she has achieved what she hoped to do: “to inspire up-and-coming
scientists,” and all of us, to live fearlessly and authentically. I will be neither the first nor the last to say this, but when I touch the roof of my car at the gates, my hand lingers. There is no doubt in my mind that Ashley Elizabeth Block will live on as our Sewanee angel, whose presence we touch as we enter and leave this place that she loved so much.