By Friday afternoon, a Black Hills spruce tree will sit just outside of Marvin Hall and stand tall above the surrounding landscape. The tree will be a reminder of a student lost almost a year ago who had spent most of his time in that very hall.
2013 graduate student Gianfranco Villagomez-Saldana passed away in early December of last year. As part of the Replant Mount Oread event, he will be memorialized with this tree, which his family chose.
After Villagomez-Saldana’s death, his family wanted him to be remembered, and in January, International Student Services reached out to KU Endowment about possible projects. Replant Mount Oread, which will renovate the landscape by Marvin Hall this fall, struck a chord with Chuck Olcese, director of International Student Services. Olcese said the location worked out perfectly considering Villagomez-Saldana was an industrial design student and Marvin Hall is the architecture and design hall.
“His family specifically wanted something close to where he spent a lot of time,” Olcese said. “It was a real good match.”
To raise the $1,000 needed for the memorial Black Hills spruce tree, ISS connected with students who knew Villagomez-Saldana and encouraged them to reach out to people they knew for donations. After graduation, ISS received a message from KU Endowment that they had reached their goal.
“I didn’t know if we’d be able to get that or not,” Olcese said. “But, it was amazingly simple, we just put out the word and let it go.”
Through this past year, Olcese said he was most impressed with the diverse community effort in honor of Villagomez-Saldana. Not only international students, but design and Latin American studies students also were involved in raising funds.
“That was what was really special about him,” Olcese said. “He had touched so many people.”
2013 University alum Jessica Fertig from Colombia donated to a Facebook fund for Villagomez-Saldana and his family, but did not donate to the tree fund that began shortly after his death. It was around this time Fertig said she had been hit hard by the loss of her friend.
“His loss was so tragic and shocking to me that I removed myself, especially after the memorial,” Fertig said.
Fertig had met Villagomez-Saldana through the design department. They connected through speaking Spanish and immediately became friends.
“He was one of those people that everyone really liked him, genuinely,” Fertig said. “He always had a smile on his face.”
Although Fertig may not have been involved with the tree fund, she said Villagomez-Saldana is very deserving of a memorial. For Fertig, the tree is not just a memorial, but also a celebration of life.
“Everyone pitched in and showed how big of a heart he had,” Fertig said. “It’s good to be able to have something there not only to remember his life but also to highlight how loved he was.”
Speaking to his humble nature, Fertig said Villagomez-Saldana would see the Black Hills spruce tree outside of Marvin Hall and smile the smile he was known for.
“I think that will bring him joy and that will make him feel very proud,” Fertig said. “He will probably have a smile or laugh of gratitude.”
Fertig said although this memorial is for Villagomez-Saldana, it has a greater reach. The community he was such a large part of made it possible for a memorial like this to exist.
“It is about that collaboration, that community aspect of people meeting in a place at KU and creating such a great friend and family connection,” Fertig said.
Because Villagomez-Saldana’s family lives in Peru, they will not see the tree planted in his memory, but plan to visit the site in December. Olcese said the design department will host a ceremony for the memorial and the family.
— Edited by Kelsie Jennings