On a recent morning, Debbie and Jim McLeland and a small group of friends gathered in front of M&K Oil in Gillette as a Bobcat lowered a bronze winged shoe, six feet in length, into place on a stump of petrified wood.
The sculpture commemorates the eight University of Wyoming cross-country runners who were killed by a drunken driver in 2001. It also serves as yet another reminder of the dangers of drunken driving.
Among those killed in the crash was Nick Schabron of Laramie, who was driving the Jeep Cherokee they were all riding in. Morgan McLeland of Gillette also died in that crash. He was 21.
This fall will mark the 21st anniversary of the tragic crash.
In the years since the death of his son and seven of his teammates, John Schabron has worked to improve Highway 287 and make it safer for anyone driving it. In some places it had been so narrow and dangerous it invited head-on collisions and earned the highway the nickname the “Highway of Death.”
For McLeland’s mom, Debbie McLeland, time has flown by and simultaneously stood still.
“That’s the strange thing about it,” she said. “It doesn’t take much to just go right back to it, feel everything that you felt that day, and yet, it seems like, how could it possibly be this long?”
Each September, the community honors the memory of those eight runners with the Memory of the 8 Walk/Run. Now, with this sculpture, there will be a reminder that is up year round, ensuring the Memory of the 8 lives on.
The sculpture was created by local artist and dentist Dr. Patrick Love with Powder River Dental.
Sonny Roberts first came up with the idea for the statue in 2010 after running the Boston Marathon and seeing a sculpture of a winged foot that had been made for the 2,500 year anniversary of the very first marathon in 490 B.C.
He took a picture of the sculpture and it was eventually seen by Love, who took the project on.
Love estimated it took between nine and 12 months to complete the sculpture, which measures 72 inches, or six feet, in length and stands 80 inches off the ground at its highest point.
The shoe faces north, the direction that the Memory of the 8 begins and ends at M&K Oil.
Five years ago, Roberts and the Razor City Runners started raising money for the statue. They started with a raffle of a replica of the statue, and over the years they raised the $6,300 that was required for the casting.
Eight UW runners were killed Sept. 16, 2001, when their vehicle was hit by a drunken driver as they were returning from a trip to Fort Collins, Colorado, on a highway outside Laramie.
“It was just total shock,” Roberts said. “How do you process 9/11, and then process (the deaths of) these eight young men? It was a dark period for sure.”
For Roberts, he processed it by doing what those eight men loved: running.
“I respect the talent those young men had,” Roberts said. “It takes a lot of work to nurture that gift. It was a personal motivator for me.”
The race is an 8-mile figure 8 route that takes runners all around town. Roberts said for two years he ran that route by himself as a way to honor those eight young men. He came up with the route to connect the old Rec Center on South Douglas Highway and what was then the south campus of Campbell County High School.
“For some reason, I decided to connect the two. That’s the route I came up with,” he said.
As it so happens, it ended up being eight miles long, and in the shape of a figure eight.
“None of this was planned, it just fell into place,” Roberts said. “It was just like clockwork, and that’s what makes it so amazing and motivating.”
The race has grown every year since the run was established, with the McLelands’ full support.
Last year’s was bigger than usual, with it being the 20th anniversary, Debbie said.
“It was a nice party,” she said. “Morgan always liked a nice party.”
When Love was asked to make the statue, he said yes without much hesitation. He began by making the statue out of styrofoam, then began putting clay on the outside of it. The one issue was that the wings on the back of the shoe kept breaking off.
“I said, ‘My wings are breaking off, but I think I’m all right. Too bad I didn’t put rebar (in),’” he said. “Rebar showed up at my house the next day.”
The rebar showed up courtesy of Roberts, and Love was able to finish the sculpture and get it cast.
Roberts said he hopes the sculpture will spark a conversation.
“I think people will ask, ‘What does that mean?’ And we can share that story. The whole story’s got a lot of chapters,” Roberts said.
This isn’t something the McLeland family will ever forget, Debbie said.
“It just doesn’t happen overnight,” she said. “It’s been 21 years of this. It started one Sunday morning when the police knocked on my door and told me what had happened. We started on this journey and we’ve been on it ever since.”
Replicas of the sculpture will be sent to the families of the seven other victims of that fatal accident.
The next step is getting a plaque for the sculpture that tells the story and lists the names of the eight runners.
Jim McLeland said he and his family are grateful that Roberts has taken this on and seen it through.
“We appreciate all the hard work for making this happen, seeing the vision and getting it done,” he said.
Too often, things like this get forgotten after a few years pass. That Gillette still remembers and honors the eight runners two decades after their deaths is a testament to the community, Roberts said.
“If the community hadn’t come together and done this, then it eventually would’ve been forgotten,” he said. “That’s our mission. We keep telling this story.”