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Extinguished

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By Stephen Lega

Courtney Spalding held a candle in front of her as her obituary was being read. It was tough listening to someone describe how she had "died."

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"I really started crying when I heard my own [obituary] because it was something my parents would have to go through," she said.

Spalding, a 17-year-old junior, hadn't really died, but she was one of the students chosen by the Grim Reaper to participate in the Ghost Out Wednesday at Marion County High School.

The Ghost Out was a reminder of the risks of drinking and driving.

That point was driven home by Stephanie Wardrip of Lincoln County, a woman who knows first-hand what the consequences of drunk driving can be. Wardrip's son, Branson Taylor Warner-Cummins, was 6 years old when he was killed by a drunk driver.

Wardrip shared photos of her son - playing with John Deere tractor toys, hanging out with his grandfather and graduating from kindergarten.

"This is the only graduation I will ever go to for Branson," she said as tears filled her eyes.

On the day he died, Branson was riding to Frankfort with his grandfather. Joseph Shreve was driving back from Ohio. The police found four empty beer cans and pill bottles in Shreve's vehicle after the accident, according to Wardrip.

Shreve is serving 25 years in prison as a result of the accident. He was convicted of first-degree wanton endangerment, second-degree assault and second-degree manslaughter. Last September, he was denied parole, which means he will serve his entire term.

While Wardrip will never get to see her son learn to drive, graduate or get married, Shreve will miss his own son's high school graduation.

"Joseph Shreve did not only ruin my family that day," she said. "He ruined his own."

After Wardrip's talk, Spalding, a dozen other students and teacher Coury Osbourne participated in the Reaper ceremony. All of the participants had been chosen by the Grim Reaper throughout the day to "die" as a result of a drunk driving accident.

Senior Brayon Skinnner, 17, said he and his friends had been talking about the Reaper during lunch when he was selected. He said he was given a T-shirt to wear and was instructed not to talk to anyone the rest of the day.

They also had to write about their "death".

"It was crazy that we had to write our own obituaries," Skinner said. "That's something I never thought I'd be doing."

Spalding said writing the obituary was one of the more difficult parts of the Ghost Out experience.

"I would hate to see that happen to any of my friends," she said. "To me, it was the worst thing that I've had to do even though it wasn't real."

Osbourne was the only teacher selected by the Grim Reaper. She agreed with Spalding that writing the obituary was hard to do.

But she also said that she believed the message about the dangers of drinking and driving got through to the students. Osbourne said she saw students crying as they left the ceremony, and she heard her own students say that Wardrip's story was powerful.

During the ceremony, Elizabeth Creed, the Marion County family and consumer sciences extension agent, read the obituaries for each of the high school's 14 "victims" of drinking and driving. As the obituaries were read, the Grim Reaper touched them, one at a time. As they were touched, each victim then blew out his or her candle, laid down and was covered by a white sheet.

Skinner, for one, understood what the program was trying to say about drinking and driving.

"It's very dangerous," he said. "Anything can happen at any time."

Spalding also recognized that the impact of drinking and driving goes beyond just the person who does it.

"It's not only hurting you, but the people around you," she said.