Killed in a Fiery Crash

Cliff Williams
Department of Philosophy
Trinity College
Deerfield, Illinois 60015
 

It was 1:00 PM on Wednesday, May 7, 1997. The car Peter Lu was driving veered into oncoming traffic and hit a tractor-trailer head on. He was killed instantly and burned beyond recognition in the fire that ensued. The police did not know who he was. However, they found the name of a faculty member at Trinity College in Peter’s Bible in the back seat of the car. It was Prof. Jackie Bell, Peter’s former piano teacher. They called her. Jackie told the police who it was, for she knew that Peter was headed to Chicago from the University of Missouri, where Peter was a graduate student in biology, to pick up his mother at O'Hare airport.

Peter’s parents lived in China. Neither of them had been able to come to Peter’s graduation from Trinity College the year before. But his mother was coming a year later to visit Peter and to attend a graduation ceremony with Peter. Jackie Bell also knew about this. But she was unable to go to the airport to contact Peter’s mother. So she called another faculty member who knew Peter, Prof. Carmen Mendoza. Carmen went to the airport, found Peter’s mother and told her what had happened to Peter. Peter’s mother had waited at the airport for six hours after she arrived, alone, not knowing what to do except to sit and wait. When she saw Carmen approach her, she knew instinctively that something dreadful had occurred. She wailed when she found out what it was. Peter was her only child.

I found out that Peter had been killed two days later, on Friday, the last day of the semester. Just after I had eaten lunch, Phil Jacobson, a student, called me at home about something and during our conversation asked whether I had heard about Peter. I hadn’t. I was so stunned when he told me that Peter had been killed that I could not work. I lay on the couch. I went outside. I lay on the couch some more. I did an errand. The news ended the sabbatical I was on that semester.

I first met Peter at the beginning of his sophomore year. He wanted to get into the honors section of Introduction to Philosophy. I told him that the requirement was a GPA of 3.3. He said that his was 4.0. I let him into the class.

When Peter was a junior, he asked me if I would like to drive a carload of students to an Indian restaurant in Chicago. I said yes. So he got two or three other students and I drove us all to the restaurant. The next semester we went to a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. And during his senior year we went to two other foreign restaurants.

Peter went sandwiching with me once or twice. On the way back on one of these occasions I wondered aloud what the real world was—the homeless world of hunger and despair on the streets of Chicago that we had just been at or the affluent and beautiful Deerfield world Trinity College is embedded in. Peter reported on his website that I often “pounded in” that question to the students in the car. On that trip he found a tape of Mozart piano sonatas in the car and put it into the tape player.

Several months after Peter’s death, the Student Development Office called me to say that a box of Peter’s belongings were in the office and that I could come over and take what I wanted. I took a Mozart CD and a heavy shirt. I could not see the contents of the box too well through my glazed eyes.

Right at 1:00 PM on May 7 every year since Peter's death I have stopped whatever I am doing to remember Peter. One year that time fell at the very beginning of a final exam. That year I did two things at once, though the students in the class saw me doing only one.