Issue 13Uncategorized

Picking Up the Pieces


On July 29, 2007, Ryan Hunter Dickerson drowned at a summer camp in Texas.

Ryan was a graduate of Modesto High School’s International Baccalaureate program. He was less than a month from his first day of college at Washington University in St. Louis.

He was 18 years old.

Ryan’s mother Lynn answered the phone at the family’s Sacramento home that night, and remembers Ryan’s counselor from Camp Champions, who had led her two sons through a dozen summers before this, asking for her husband Ron. She realizes now how nervous he was, how hard the next words were to force out. “There’s been an accident,” he said. “Ryan drowned.”

“I can’t even describe what it felt like,” recounts Lynn now. “It was like an out of body experience. Just bees buzzing in my head. All I could say was ‘this can’t be true.’”

A few hours later, when Lynn broke the news to Ryan’s father Ron, she said “the worst thing that could ever happen to us has happened.”

“I know,” the Counselor had said to her on the phone. “I loved him too.”

Everyone did.

Where Ryan’s story of unlimited promise ends, his parents’ story of recovery begins.

Lynn Dickerson was a superstar in the newspaper industry at the time. Following a successful six-year turn as publisher of the Modesto Bee, she had been promoted to Vice President of Operations for McClatchy in 2006. At 49, she was in charge of almost a billion dollars in revenue, 3800 employees and had just been elected President of the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

The Dickersons were transplants from Texas. They’d spent six years in Modesto. They had flourished here. Ross and Ryan, Lynn and Ron’s two sons, had both attended and graduated from Modesto high schools. During high school, Ryan was a star on the waterpolo team and Homecoming King his senior year, he’d brought home phenomenal grades and a never ending list of new friends. He was one of those people who could light up a room with a smile, one of those few who seemed to be almost instantly loved by everyone he met. “He just loved life,” remembers Ron. “He lived more in his 18 years than many people do in 80.”

After his death, Lynn and Ron were hollowed out. They’d lived in Sacramento for 10 days. Their dream home, still filled with boxes and the detritus of moving, had become what Lynn describes as a big beautiful house of sadness. They didn’t know anyone in the area. Their first call was to friends in Modesto.

“We got the call about Ryan at 7 p.m.,” says Lynn. “By 8:30, 10 of our Modesto friends were in our house helping us cope.”

In the days, weeks and months that followed, the grieving parents were barely functional. The Modesto community helped prop them up and propel them forward. “We were like zombies, but our friends from Modesto were so wonderful to us. We didn’t have to spend a day by ourselves. They helped us make funeral arrangements, offered cars and vans to bring family in. They opened their homes for family to stay in. I’ll always feel tender to my Rotary Club, which wasn’t even my Rotary Club anymore. They passed the hat that Tuesday and collected money that they used to buy sandwiches for the reception.”

“Modesto just embraced us and loved us and took care of us.”

For two years after Ryan’s death, Lynn and Ron continued their lives in Sacramento. Stumbling from day to day on autopilot. Going through the motions but not really there. Throughout that time, the Modesto community continued to provide the support they needed to keep going.

When the newspaper business started its precipitous decline and McClatchy offered Lynn an exit, she took it. In 2009, Lynn and Ron left that big house and they headed back to Ryan’s town, to the community they loved.

“The community welcomed us with open arms. We loved Modesto when we left, we really loved Modesto when we came back,” says Lynn. “The opportunity to come back was the greatest thing. We wanted to be among people that we loved, and Modesto was that place for us.”

Lynn accepted her position as CEO of the Gallo Center for the Arts while Ron founded Oodles Frozen Yogurt.

“Coming back has been an enormous blessing in our lives. This job really brought me back to life and opening Oodles did the same for Ron,” says Lynn.

“After Ryan’s death, we thought that we’d never have fun or feel joy again. But in Modesto our lives have become richer and better. We still cry, and we still miss Ryan so much. But we have social lives now, and we have really rich relationships. And we do have fun again.”

“I thought for a while that grief was like carrying this giant boulder with me everywhere I went. At first, it was the size of a building. With time, it got a little smaller and a little smaller. Now, it’s like a pebble that I carry around in my pocket. It will always be with me, but it is no longer weighing me down and crippling me,” says Lynn.

“There’s no getting over grief,” adds Ron. “It’s always there. You can scar over, you can heal somewhat, but it’s always with you.”

Today, Ryan is remembered in monuments throughout the city that he loved. Inside the Modesto branch of the Stanislaus County Library, a huge tree spreads its branches above the children’s area in Ryan’s memory. A fountain and garden at the corner of H Street and Burney that Ryan landscaped for his Eagle Scout project now bears a plaque in his memory. The Dickersons also present yearly scholarships and awards to students in Ryan’s name.

“We’ve done all of these things because we don’t want him to be forgotten,” says Lynn. “All the things we have done to memorialize him we have done in Modesto because he loved this town. Modesto was his town.” He wasn’t born here, but Ryan Dickerson made Modesto his home.

And since their lives were changed forever in 2007, Lynn and Ron Dickerson have made it theirs as well.

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