A year of painful firsts: A family remembers their son killed one year ago

Wayne and Annie Royer and their 20-something children, Kyle and Erin, huddled together for a photo during a family get-together last October.

It was done on a spur of the moment at the 50th wedding anniversary for Wayne Royer’s parents, but it captured a moment when the parents who work at Penn State, the son who worked at Penn State and was soon to start working as a truck driver, and the daughter who’s a away at college in Huntingdon, could sideline their busy schedules and smile for one snap.

Now, the photo is in a frame in the living room of the Royers’ Bellefonte home, and it captured much more than the portrait of a busy family.

It captured the priceless moment of one of the last few days the family of four had together.

Five days later, early the morning of Oct. 20, 2011, the Royers’ lives were turned upside when 24-year-old Kyle Royer was killed in a truck crash on Interstate 80 in Marion Township, his first day of work.

A truck, heading from Chicago to Maine and hauling a trailer with an overweight load, rear-ended the dump truck Royer was driving. The impact of the crash forced the dump truck off the highway, onto its right side. Royer died at the scene from chest trauma, the coroner ruled.

What followed were a slew of firsts without him — the first Thanksgiving, his birthday, his sister Erin’s first birthday without her big brother.

Now, as Saturday marked the one-year anniversary, family and friends remember the young man as someone with a heart of gold, an ever-present positive outlook on life and someone whose passing inevitably brought them all closer together.

“It’s a pain and emotion that you don’t understand until you live through it,” said Wayne Royer. “I think this has made all us of realize you don’t know what the day is going to bring and how quickly things can change.”

Time is frozen

Wayne and Annie Royer work a short walk away from each other on campus, Wayne in the Reber Building and Annie on the third floor of the IST Building.

They carpool to campus each morning. Before Kyle's death, they might see him mowing the grass at the arboretum, the law school or the IST Building. Their son worked as a landscaper.

The morning of the crash, Kyle Royer left home for his first day driving for Confer Trucking before his parents had gone in. Wayne Royer said he remembers hearing his son getting ready, and they had texted one another the day before.

After getting word about the crash, Wayne Royer was walking to the IST Building to get his wife and leave work. Before he got there came the devastating news by a call from the owner of the trucking company.

“It’s like time is frozen,” said a soft-spoken Wayne Royer. “It’s something beyond what you can imagine. You just wonder — ‘Did you hear it right?’ ‘Is it true?’ ‘Did someone make a mistake?’ ”

The feeling, the father described it, was like someone pulling the rug out of from under them.

Wayne Royer calls his son his best friend. They shared the same sense of humor and might be the only two people in the room who thinks something is funny.

His son gave him confidence, too, often saying, ‘Dad, you can do it,’ when working projects that took longer than he expected they would.

He had good connections, too.

“He knew so many people that if I didn’t know how to do something or was stumped, he could text someone and in five minutes have an answer,” the father said.

Annie Royer misses her son’s ability to laugh at anything, to find a joke in anything.

“I just miss him,” she said. “He always had a story about something someone did at Penn State.”

The death was devastating to the aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins in the family.

“You just have this feeling he’s going to show up on Sunday evening like he always did,” said Robert Royer, Kyle’s paternal grandfather.

My buddy

Kyle Royer loved to work outside and he loved to help out friends and family when they needed something.

Growing up, his mother would drop off the kids at her mother’s house in State College before going to work at C-COR. The grandmother, Dorcas Klinefelter, had them in the summers, too.

He first tried his hand at shoveling the snow off her sidewalks when he was only 3.

“He did pretty good for his age,” she said. “That was his chore, he thought, when he was here.”

As he got older, he kept up with the yard work, shoveling sidewalks for her and taking her groceries inside the house from the car. All she’d have to do is call, and he’d be over.

The last time she saw her grandson was when he picked her up to take her to Wayne Royer’s parents’ 50th anniversary party, when the family posed for the photograph.

“He was my buddy,” she said.

He helped out his aunt, Heather Fults, on her horse farm. He cleaned out stalls, helped her install mats into the stalls, cut firewood, put up a fence and even build a barn.

“Kyle was my go-to man for help,” said Fults, of Milesburg. “If we were going away for the weekend, he was always the one who stayed and took care of the horses.”

Just as he helped his family, he was willing to lend a hand to his friends.

Last summer, Greg Reeder, of Zion, enlisted Royer’s handy skills to turn his condo’s unfinished basement into a man cave.

They got about 80 to 90 percent done with the project before the crash, Reeder said. They had enough done to host some poker games that Royer came to.

“I can never repay the amount of help he gave me on that project,” said Reeder, who met Royer in elementary school and became closer friends in high school. “We had some good laughs, too.”

Cory Cunningham, of Bellefonte, who grew up a few houses down from Royer, knew him since they were toddlers. He remembered Royer coming with him to a softball tournament at Penn State’s Altoona campus, where Cunningham’s wife is an assistant coach. Cunningham was missing his favorite team’s game that Saturday — Notre Dame — so Royer found an audio streaming of the play-by-play on his cellphone and handed it over to his friend.

“It didn’t matter what I had asked him to help with he was more than happy to help,” said another friend, Nate Ammerman, of Bellefonte, who had his help for building an addition to his shed. “He definitely loved life the way it was and was content doing whatever came his way.”

One day or 20 years

As helpful and giving as Kyle Royer was, his parents were that forgiving the day of the sentencing for Cenk Esenbel, the Turkish national living in New York who caused the crash that killed their son.

Facing what Judge Bradley P. Lunsford said was a tough decision, he asked Wayne Royer and daughter Erin what kind of punishment they wanted Esenbel to have.

They didn’t ask the judge to throw the book at Esenbel. They didn’t raise their voices.

Wayne Royer, with more than a dozen family members in the courtroom for emotional support, told the judge that Esenbel spending years in prison would not bring back their son. It didn’t matter if he got “one day or 20 years,” the father said.

Erin Royer even thanked Esenbel for the tearful apology he gave.

That day, June 28, Esenbel was sentenced to at least 15 months in a state prison, although his sentence later was shortened to 11 and a half months.

The Royers don’t think Esenbel is a bad person. They think he’s someone who made really bad decisions, and it didn’t take them too long to forgive him.

“He has to live with it,” Wayne Royer said. “We had to forgive him if we want to see Kyle again.”

We realize what we had

It may seem almost counterintuitive to find the bright side in the untimely death of a young man. But Royer family members have channeled two positives from the tragedy: One, the family has come closer together’ and, two, don’t take life for granted.

On his dad’s side, Kyle Royer was the only grandson among a handful of granddaughters.

At family gatherings, Kyle was the one who said grace.

He sought out his younger cousins and always tried to get a laugh out of them.

His aunt, Karen Royer, of Warriors Mark, remembers a picture of her dancing with a young Kyle at the Bellefonte Cruise years ago. She and her husband, Bobby, bought Kyle his first boots and his first camouflage gear for deer hunting.

“He was always very in tune with his family, and he always did things with his family,” Bobby Royer said.

The family came together to support Wayne and Annie Royer after their son’s death, and even encouraged them to take the anniversary cruise to Bermuda they planned even though it meant shipping out six days after the funeral.

Wayne and Annie Royer say the family convinced them to go.

“Everybody encouraged us because they said Kyle would have wanted us to go,” Wayne Royer said.

Their son’s friends formed another layer of support, and they’ve continued to include the parents and Erin Royer in their lives.

It’s two-way therapy, they say.

Erin Royer, a senior at Juniata College, turned 21 before the crash last year, but her friends weren’t of age and her work schedule made it tough to have a first night out. Her brother assured her that he and his friends would show her the ropes, and a month after the crash, his friends made good on the offer.

“She’s another name on the scroll down when you’re sending out that group text,” said, Cunningham, one of the friends, about including the sister.

They made a meal for Wayne and Annie Royer, they watched over their house while they took their cruise to Bermuda, and they watched their son’s dog, Coco, a chocolate Lab.

The Reeders joined the Royers for a dog walk at the Grange Fairgrounds last year, too.

And Cunningham has taken up golfing with Wayne Royer.

Kyle Royer kept good company, and “it kind of shows you what kind of person he was,” said Bobby Royer, the uncle.

“We realize what we had, and we were taking it for granted for a long time,” he said.

Hardest part

Kyle Royer liked being outdoors — hunting, camping, four-wheeling.

He asked for his first snow shovel when he was 9, and shoveled his family’s sidewalks and the stands at Beaver Stadium.

He shot his first deer at the family’s hunting camp in Clearfield County near Karthaus.

He lived for the Klondike Derby each winter when he was in the Boy Scouts.

And there was one time he drove his four-wheeler through a mud puddle but he exaggerated, calling it a clay pit, his younger sister, Erin Royer, recalled.

The little memories like those are the toughest in moving forward, she said.

“Every once in a while something happens that I’ll just stop and I’ll say, ‘he’s actually gone,’” said his sister, Erin Royer, who was close with her older brother. “That’s the hardest part to accept.”

For her, and her parents, they’ve been doing things he liked or things that remind them of him.

For Erin Royer’s 22nd birthday a few weeks ago, she put candles on top of a peanut butter pie instead of a cake, which Kyle liked.

For Kyle Royer’s birthday in July, the parents celebrated privately at a campsite away from home. They bought a cake to mark the special day.

They wanted something to help take their minds of the hurt and focus on the good person their son was, how much he helped people, how loved by everyone he was.

And they had the same plan to mark the last of the firsts, the one-year anniversary, on Saturday.