Lending a Hand After Loss

Story by Matt Wing

Andrew Apel ’18 (second from right) received Parent Fund support after the death of his father, Scott (far right).
Andrew Apel ’18 (second from right) received Parent Fund support after the death of his father, Scott (far right).

Illinois Wesleyan’s Parent Fund supports enrolled students who lose a parent to death or permanent disability and has served as a beacon of hope to both current and former students by providing assistance during times of need. 

Andrew Apel ’18 awoke to his darkened bedroom illuminated by blinking red and blue lights.

When Kathie Apel woke her eldest son in the wee hours of the morning of July 23, 2015, he instantly knew something was wrong. His mother told him there was a police car in the driveway. A peek through the blinds confirmed it.

After rousing younger brother Adam, the Apels answered the door together. Two police officers stood outside. They asked if they could come in.

“You might want to sit down for this,” one of them said.

The officers explained that Scott Apel — Andrew and Adam’s father, and Kathie’s husband — had been reported missing. Away on a business trip at Wisconsin’s Delavan Lake, Scott Apel had reportedly been thrown from a boat and never resurfaced.

The Apels quickly readied themselves for the 90-minute drive to Delavan Lake. They were joined by Kathie’s parents, and Scott’s sister and brother-in-law. They reminded themselves of the possible outcomes that weren’t the one they feared. Maybe he swam to shore? Maybe another boat picked him up?

The Apels arrived at the Delavan Police Department a couple hours later. Although the search for Scott Apel was ongoing, there was no news to report. The family had nothing to do but wait and worry. A few hours later, an officer approached them. A body had been recovered from the water.

It was determined Andrew Apel would identify the body.

“He was wearing the same family chain that my brother and I wear,” Andrew Apel said. “So, yeah, I knew it was him.”

 · · ·

Tucked away in the home office of Dr. David ’02 and Laura (Harris) Besley ’00 is a box of letters.

A new one arrives every year. Sometimes two or three. When the lid is lifted to add another, messages from letters past come spilling out.

Dr. David ’02 and Laura (Harris) Besley ’00 have supported the Parent Fund since 2006.
Dr. David ’02 and Laura (Harris) Besley ’00 have supported the Parent Fund since 2006.

The letters are from recipients of Illinois Wesleyan’s Parent Fund. Since 2006, the Besleys have supported the fund, which offers tuition assistance to enrolled IWU students who suffer the loss or permanent disability of a parent.

The Besleys’ connection to the fund comes from personal experience; Laura Besley lost her father while she was in high school.

“The experience of losing a parent at a young age shaped my life,” she said. “If a student has to go through that and also face the prospect of losing Wesleyan and the community they have there, we thought we could be part of their story in a positive, supportive way, in the midst of something so terrible.” 

The Besleys have built a happy life. After starting their family in North Carolina, they relocated to Madison, Wisconsin, a little more than a decade ago. David Besley has a dental practice. Laura Besley stays busy as a full-time mom and volunteer pastor. The Besleys often think of their time at IWU and the foundation they built then.

Then they think of what it would have been like to have had it taken away.

“There’s the whole compounding loss aspect to it,” David Besley said. “It’s already such a tragedy to lose a parent, but to compound that by losing your community? That’s a tragedy, too. 

The Besleys founded the John Justus Harris Memorial Scholarship in 2009 to honor Laura’s late father, and their connection to the Parent Fund has only grown over the years. It’s strengthened every time they receive a call, email, text — or handwritten letter — from a Parent Fund recipient.

One recent letter stood out to Laura Besley.

“The student was really sharing from her heart, and it was neat to know that our lives — even though we had never met — had intersected, and she received our support the way we wanted it to be received,” Laura Besley said. “She felt it was a gift.”

· · ·

No matter how busy the Apel family was, there was always dedicated family time.

“Dinner was always a big thing for us,” Andrew Apel said. “No matter if my brother or I had a practice, or if my dad had to work late, we always sat down, the four of us, and had dinner together every night.”

After Scott Apel’s death on July 23, 2015, the empty chair at the dinner table was symbolic of the hole in their lives.

“My dad was my hero. It was really hard not getting to say goodbye,” Andrew Apel said. “But pretty quickly, everything became about keeping the family together, because if there was one thing we knew, it was that he would have wanted that.”

The tight-knit family became even tighter, but Andrew Apel received support from other sources, too. Among them were his football coach, Norm Eash ’75, teammates, fraternity brothers and friends. As members of that support system came through the receiving line at his father’s visitation, he was struck by the thought that he might be seeing some of them for the last time.

“At that point, I was done with football. I was done with college,” he said. “I had already decided I needed to stay home and find a job to help take care of my mom.”

But Apel remembered how his father encouraged him to attend Illinois Wesleyan, a place he could continue his football career while also receiving a top-notch education.

And then he learned about the Parent Fund. 

“I had started looking at community colleges and more local options to save money, and kind of patching my college experience together,” Apel said. “Thankfully for the Parent Fund, I didn't have that stress.”

Support from the Parent Fund allowed Apel to stay at IWU, a place he now calls a “second home.”

“Wesleyan was somewhere that not only did I feel comfortable, but somewhere my mom knew that I would be cared for, and a place that provided the opportunity for me to continue to develop,” Apel said. “And because of the Parent Fund, I didn’t have to take a massive step backward because of something that was completely out of my control.

“To this day, I’m just so grateful and thankful.”

 · · ·

When Norb Gross suffered the loss of his father the week after he graduated from high school, he inherited a grand total of $45 from his father’s checking account.

Norb and Linda Gross (center, second from right) have supported the Parent Fund since daughter Lindsay Gross ’08 (far left) attended IWU.
Norb and Linda Gross (center, second from right) have supported the Parent Fund since daughter Lindsay Gross ’08 (far left) attended IWU. 

Gross and his two younger brothers had lost their mother years earlier and, with plans to enroll at Notre Dame that fall, he was truly on his own. But the resourceful young man worked a summer construction job to fund his education. He also took out loans, and his late father’s Social Security benefits provided additional assistance.

“There weren’t too many people like Norb at Notre Dame,” said Linda Gross, his wife.

Although he was admittedly a “fish out of water” in South Bend, Norb Gross earned his degree and went on to a successful career in the pipe manufacturing industry. Linda worked as a guidance counselor in Naperville, Illinois, where the Grosses made their home and started a family.

One of their two daughters visited IWU on a college tour, and when the guide mentioned the Parent Fund, Linda Gross’s ears perked up. She knew she had to tell her husband.

“It resonated because that’s what I’d gone through,” Norb Gross said. “I didn’t have that kind of support back when I was a student.”

Lindsay Gross ’08 enrolled at Illinois Wesleyan and her parents began their long-term support of the Parent Fund. In 2016, they created the Norbert and Linda Gross Endowed Parent Fund Scholarship. 

“Another piece to our support is that we love Illinois Wesleyan because our daughter loved it so much,” Linda Gross said. “She had such a great experience there.”

Norb and Linda Gross have been regular attendees of Illinois Wesleyan’s annual Scholarship Benefactor Dinner, which brings together donors and scholarship recipients. Being able to meet students receiving their support has only strengthened their connection to the fund.

“You see your contributions at work,” Linda Gross said. “It’s really nice to meet the person and to see the impact of what you’re doing.”

· · ·

Four years removed from his Illinois Wesleyan graduation, hardly a day passes when Andrew Apel doesn’t think about his alma mater.

He lives in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood and works for DocuSign, the electronic agreement management company.

Apel acknowledges the trajectory of his life was forever changed on July 23, 2015, but insists the support of the Parent Fund provided a stabilizing influence during the most turbulent time of his life. He notes the impact was felt by others, too.

“It went way beyond just me,” he said. “My entire family is thankful for the Parent Fund.”

Apel says no amount of thanks will sufficiently express his gratitude. He reckons the best way to do so will be to return the kindness.

“Illinois Wesleyan and the Parent Fund are always going to be a part of me and part of what drives me to be successful in my life,” he said. “I hope to be half the man my dad was, and I hope that I can be successful enough in life that I can provide the same kind of support that I received while I was at Wesleyan.”