A bench that sits beyond the right field fence at the West Hall baseball field honoring the late Brian Ernst, a former Spartans pitcher who died of cancer in 2010, was given a face lift on Saturday.
Workers, including Brian’s father, Steve Ernst, began to install a stone walkway around the bench, as well as planted shrubs and two weeping cherry trees.
The memorial is in the location Donna Ernst, Brian’s mother, would sit during his baseball games.
“Brian would always tell me he was going to hit me out there,” Donna said. “And sure enough, his home runs would go right over my head. It’s a special spot. I never realized they noticed that was where I was sitting.”
Donna said one of the great memories she cherishes of her son’s life was watching him play from that spot. Even from a distance, she said, she could always see Brian’s smile on the field.
“When he was out there, he was just so happy,” she said. “And you could see it from all the way out where that bench is.”
That was the type of kid he was, his dad said. Even throughout his battle with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of pediatric cancer, Brian had a knack for improving people’s days.
“We were told many times by people who came to see him near the end that they were going there to help cheer him up, but he cheered them up instead,” Steve said. “He was just a great kid.”
West Hall assistant principal and athletic
director Scott Justus, who established a close relationship with Brian while he was a student, remembers Brian in the same way.
“He was always smiling,” he said. “He was always laughing. He wouldn’t make light of situations, but he’d find a way to get through it. He was just one of those kids.”
Helping to make the memorial a reality were West Hall High, Home Depot and All Outdoor Lawn Service.
Home Depot donated more than $1,000 worth of paving stones to improve the site.
“I can’t express how appreciative I am,” Donna said. “They’ve given us something that is permanent that we’ll have as long as we go out there, and you can’t put a price on that.”
Steve said that it was rewarding to know his son made an impact on enough people that, two years later, they would still want to honor him.
“That says a lot about Brian,” he said. “It means a lot that all these people are still thinking about him.”
He added the working on the site was bittersweet for him. He had played baseball with Brian on the West Hall field since Brian was three years old. Being there, he said, was still very difficult.
“For a while, when I drove down that road, I’d have to look the other way,” he said, gesturing to the road that runs past the high school. “It’s still very painful, but I’m happy I get to be out here doing something to honor him.”
For all the impact he had, Steve noted that even as a parent, he was able to learn a lot from the type of person Brian was.
“He taught his dad something,” Steve said. “He taught me how to die with dignity. I learned a lot from Brian, and I can only hope I can have half the impact he had in his 18 years with us.”
“Brian taught me that no matter how long you’re here for, you try to make the most of what you got,” she said. “We want him back every day, and we’d take him back right now. But in those 18 years he had, he made the most of it.”