[Originally published on Wednesday, March 26, 2014]
It’s nearly impossible to say the right thing to comfort someone who has just lost a loved one. Even trained professionals can inadvertently strike a raw nerve while navigating the murky psyche of a grieving friend or family member. Sometimes all you can do is find comfort in remembering what made a person special.
At the back of the Assistance League of San Antonio Thrift House, tucked between wedding dresses and assorted housewares, a door leads to a maze of thrift store operations. Volunteers – mostly retired, smiling women– unpack, sort, clean and price donated items in rooms throughout the large building off of West Avenue. It smells like perfume and dust. The chatter of women can be heard from all directions.
This is where 23-year-old Cameron Redus, a UIW honors student, spent much of his time during his final days before he was shot five times by a campus police officer during what many say should have been a routine traffic stop.
We didn’t gather in the nonprofit’s meeting room to talk about Cameron’s death. The informal meeting was organized to collect and document comforting memories of Cameron for his family and, ultimately, a community that has tragically lost a bright, young son. Mark Hall, a close family friend and media spokesman for the Redus family, organized the gathering, bringing in a customer from Cameron’s job at Sherman-Williams Paint, Assistance League members and long-time family friends.
“I just felt it was time to talk about who he was instead of (the circumstances) around his death,” Hall said. It’s a part of the healing process that most families go through in private. At first it felt intrusive to snap photos and verify names, but Cameron’s parents and friends were friendly, graceful, and grateful to hear one another’s perspectives.
KENS5 I-Team reporter Dillon Collier, his cameraman and I listened intently, too. We were the only ones in the room who did not know Cameron. By the time we left, I felt like I had known him.
Their stories were mere glimpses into who he was – but sometimes it’s the small moments that capture who we truly are. These are often the memories that are most vivid.
Jo Vanderver met Cameron while he was working at Sherwin-Williams, the Saturday before he was killed. She needed to paint her bathroom cabinets to match a certain color and a certain sheen. He could have just shown her the right aisle and a color wheel. Instead, he took out each color and sheen to test it for the exact one she needed.
“I was so impressed with how much time he was taking with me … so impressed with how helpful he was,” she said. They got to chatting and discovered they were both from Baytown on the Texas Gulf Coast. She has a son who turns 24 next month. Cameron would have celebrated his 24th birthday, too, had he survived the confrontation with the UW police officer. “I have made a new best friend,” Vanderver recalled saying when she got home from the store. This simple interaction – just a customer and an employee – spoke volumes of his character. “Now I can’t get him out of my mind.”
Jonnie Schulz, Assistance League member, and Patricia Leer, Thrift House manager, described Cameron’s enthusiasm while volunteering at the store as part of required community service hours for his degree in Convergent Media at UIW. Folding linens, lifting heavier boxes for the ladies, sorting through donations, “He just knew what to do,” Schulz said of Cameron’s ability to easily dive into tasks. “He had more potential and motivation than anyone I’ve met in a long time.”
With tears in her eyes and a smile on her face, Cameron’s mother Valerie Redus remembered how surprised she was when her son chose the Assistance League’s Thrift House. Young men, especially the adventurous, outdoorsy types rarely spend time with retired women at thrift shops. But he fit right in and was so passionate about his volunteer work that he made a video for/about the Assistance League for a communications class.
“He talked about it all the time,” Valerie said. It was literally at the top of his “To-Do” list in his room, even though the video was complete for the class, he was planning on perfecting it for the Assistance League. See his work so far below (spoiler alert: it’s really well done).
[If video does not load above, please try refreshing your browser window.]
“He didn’t mind engaging an older woman in conversation,” said Elaine Portie, Hall’s Aunt and Redus family friend. Often young adults are too cool for interaction beyond their age groups. Cameron, who was co-valedictorian of his high school graduating class at Baytown Christian Academy, had no problem befriending humans of all ages.
Mila Gant – family friend and neighbor to Cameron’s grandmother, Mary “Grandmary” Ellen, remembered teaching Cameron how to cook. He would buy groceries, she would bake and cook meals and send him home with batches of leftovers for the coming days of late-night study sessions. He would skip out on eating dinner out at restaurants because he knew he had a home-cooked meal waiting in his refrigerator. “Next we were going to make lasagna,” she said, pausing. “He was a lovely part of our lives.”
Valerie was overcome with emotion “to know that he spent his last days loved and appreciated.”
It actually makes sense that he would work at a thrift shop, she said, because “he understood the value of the dollar.” That lesson was learned during his many travels and trips with friends and family. Most recently, he went on a three month trip to South America with his younger brother Everett; working part-time labor jobs, staying far away from tourists traps, meeting real people, sleeping in their yards and on their floors – to tell real stories and take real photographs.
Cameron was well on his way to becoming a professional storyteller. His natural sense of adventure and kindness only enhanced his obvious talent and intellect.
His father, Mickey Redus, tried to convince Cameron to go into engineering a few years ago.
“That’s where all the money is,” Mickey said, laughing. “I’m so glad I didn’t force him to do that … life is too big” to ignore what you’re passionate about for money. All five of the Redus sons have a unique, creative talent, Mickey said. The father, himself an artist, named Cameron’s surviving siblings: Kristopher is Cameron’s older brother; Everett, Ethan and William are younger.
Cameron’s parents brought copies of a media/art package, “A Front Porch Perspective” that Cameron turned in the day he was killed. The following is his Author’s Note:
“Every so often I like to think I’ve figured everything out, but time and time again I’m reminded that I haven’t yet. All of my knowledge stems from the things I’ve experienced, so in the name of curiosity I tend to jump at the opportunity to try new things, go new places, meet new people. I get restless when I stay in one place for too long.
“Everyone has a certain need to explore the unknown. The longer you put off satisfying that need, the easier it gets to avoid.
” ‘Someday’ is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you. Act when you have the chance.
“The contents (of this package) are a list of things that bring flavor to my life. They are part of a greater list that is continually growing and changing. I hope you enjoy.
“Parents: Love. Respect. Encouragement. Support. Trust. Freedom. The things that I have been given I intend to pass on.”
As we all said our goodbyes and departed through the store front, Cameron’s parents hugged everyone – I mean real hugs. Hugs that communicate sadness, appreciation, and affirmation in ways words never could. By the time we left, the shop was buzzing with activity. A woman with a small shopping basket knocked over a wine glass as I was leaving. I imagined Cameron rushing from the back, telling the ladies to step aside as he quickly swept it up.
*Featured/top image: A photo collage of Cameron Redus’ life courtesy of his family.