Tundun Lawani loved happy endings. So much so that she refused to end a story any other way in her beginning fiction writing class with Assistant Professor of English Cyn Kitchen her freshman year at Knox.
“She said to my face, in front of the class: ‘I don’t care what you say, I’m not writing a story with a sad ending. I’m not gonna do it. I have to have happy stories,’” Kitchen said. “The fact that hers was such a tragic ending really struck me, because she had this strong commitment to happiness.”
Tundun was killed on Oct. 28, 2012 after she was hit by a drunk driver while crossing the intersection of South Street and West Street. She was 19 and a junior at the time. Three years after her death, Tundun’s family and friends remember her as the captivatingly kind young woman who was lost that night.
“Tundun was just the greatest person,” Lizzy Rodgers ‘14 said. “I just thought: Why her out of everyone? She is the person that brought so much good to the world. Why is she gone now instead of living longer and getting to spread that joy and happiness to everyone else?
In the graduation ceremony of spring 2014, the college held a moment of silence in honor of Tundun and called her name at the time when she would have received her diploma. Her name came right after her Tri Delta sister Bekah Lauer’s ‘14.
“I would have been sitting right next to her at graduation and it kills me. It still makes me really emotional today. That was a really hard reality,” Lauer said. “I crossed the stage and I got my diploma and then I looked behind me and there was no one there.”
The college also kept a chair open for Tundun at the ceremony and decorated it with flowers and her portrait.
Along with being a member of Tri Delta, Tundun served as president of Harambee Club, where her absence was also evident. Senior Abdul Oganla, who was a freshman when Tundun died, remembered that her spirit drew him to the club’s meetings.
“She was looking forward to doing great things with our club; that was the reason why I was interested in going to meetings, because of the energy she brought,” he said. “She wasn’t just a student, she was a student with a purpose.”
This year, some of the members of Tri Delta that live in Chicago planned to get together on the anniversary of Tundun’s death in order to remember her. Rodgers, who was also a member of the sorority, is always reminded of Tundun when spending time with her sisters.
“This is what I was supposed to be doing with her,” she said. “She was supposed to be here too.”
In her life, Tundun had a passion and a talent for connecting with others. Her loss has strengthened those bonds within Tri Delta and the Knox community at large.
“It’s so unfortunate that losing her brought our school closer, but that’s what happened,” Lauer said. “That just goes to show how strong of a person she was. She brought people together even when she had passed away.”
October is a difficult time for those that were close to Tundun.
Her younger brother Itunu Lawani, now 18, acknowledged that he was depressed this time last year near the anniversary of his sister’s death. He cried last week thinking about it.
“This time period alone really brings back bad times for me. It’s just always really sad,” he said.
It hits Lauer, too. “Always in October, there’s this heavy weight that comes on my chest,” she said.
After Tundun’s death, Harambee planted a tree in her honor. Each year, members of the club and other students line the sides of South Street with candles on the anniversary of the accident. Oganla said it’s crucial that Knox holds onto Tundun as the years pass, and that the club will try to maintain the tradition of honoring her memory.
“She was a part of this community and she was taken from us,” he said. “It didn’t just happen to her, it happened to everybody. I’m one of the last people that knew her, and when we leave, people don’t actually have that connection to her. But we want to make sure that as a club, as Harambee, we keep that culture, we remember Tundun.”
Members of Tri Delta and Harambee met at her tree on Wednesday to sing in honor of her memory.
Tundun’s death and the subsequent memorials are closely tied to South Street. Other motor vehicle accidents involving students have also occurred along the street recently, bringing up concerns about the street’s safety.
Dami Olotu ‘11, Tundun’s childhood friend, still wonders what, if any, precautions could have prevented the accident.
“I don’t know what Knox could have done differently, but just sometimes I’m really upset about the situation. Did there need to be a traffic light there?” she said.
Kitchen said remembering Tundun is necessary to keeping future generations of Knox students safe.
“To be part of a bunch of revelers having an innocent night being young people, and colliding with drunk drivers … We can’t forget because safety has to be an issue,” Kitchen said.
The International Relations Department continues to maintain the book collection dedicated to Tundun, who was a major in the field. As of 2013, the IR department orders several new books on West African politics each year, according to Professor of Political Science Sue Hulett.
“[Tundun] had a heart for this particular cause and so we’re happy to continue supporting that,” she said.
Rodgers said her grieving process is different every year, but it never gets easier. Last year, she took off work on the anniversary of Tundun’s death.
She thinks the best way to remember Tundun is by spreading joy to others, just like Tundun did. As a reminder to do so, she keeps a photo of Tundun in her apartment.
“Seeing her all the time reminds me to be that light and that joy in the world and carry that around my day,” Rodgers said.
When Tundun’s family and friends reflect on her memory, they see her bright smile and hear her contagious laughter.
“[Her smile] was so infectious and her laugh was very deep,” said Tomi Olotu ‘11, Tundun’s freshman year resident advisor and Dami’s sister. “It seemed like it was literally coming from her soul. She would laugh and you would laugh immediately — even if what she was laughing at wasn’t funny.”
Growing up next door to the Olotu family, in Lagos, Nigeria, Tundun would play imagination games and sing with the older twins. In her imagined stories, her friends always achieved their dreams. In her songs, Tundun would select the parts best-suited to their voices, Dami said, even if it meant giving up her own favorite harmony.
Tundun moved from Nigeria to America in ninth grade to attend Oneida Baptist Institute, a boarding school in Oneida, Ky. She joined the school’s church choir, having been involved in another choir in Nigeria. Itunu said she always loved to sing.
“Sometimes we would all get mad and tell her to keep quiet because she would just burst out and start singing,” he said.
Tundun carried on her passion for singing as a member of the Umoja Gospel Choir while at Knox. Her involvement on campus didn’t stop there. She played an instrumental role in securing Harambee House as president of the club and actively participated in Tri Delta. She regularly attended church in Galesburg, too.
“When I think of the quintessential Knox student, she was that,” Lauer said. “She was super involved and she had so many friends. She brought people together just by being herself. She was full of life.”
Lauer described her as friendly, sarcastic and unapologetically herself.
“She knew she was amazing,” Lauer said. “She was so confident, and so down-to-earth and so fabulous — just super fabulous.”
Dami said Tundun never altered her opinions or personality to suit those around her. She committed herself completely to the things she deemed important. When Dami tutored her in economics, Tundun would make her explain it over and over again until she’d grasped a concept.
That stubborn streak sometimes got her in trouble as a kid and caused a few arguments between the two as adults, but Dami wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“She wouldn’t back down,” Dami said. “But you kind of love her for it … People who interacted with her ended up better versions of themselves … I don’t say that because she’s dead now, I say that because I truly believe that’s the light that she had: the ability to make you better than you thought you were.”
The things Dami remembers most about Tundun have less to do with actual events and more with Tundun’s innate qualities.
“[Tundun] just was always the voice of joy,” she said.
Tundun put her siblings first growing up. Itunu said she would make food for them and checked in on his well-being frequently.
“I remember her being very caring,” he said. “She always made food for us. She always put herself after us. She was very selfless.”
When Itunu remembers his sister, her big smile is one of the first things that come to mind.
“She had a joyful attitude,” he said. “Every time we had a family photo, she was always the shining star.”
Tundun’s loved ones mostly think of happy memories when they look back on her life now: Itunu recalls staying up until 5 a.m. laughing at YouTube videos with his sister the last time he saw her, Dami remembers how Tundun loved to create matches between her neighborhood friends and Lauer can hear Tundun’s echoing laugh after cracking a sarcastic joke.
“It’s just important that her spirit lives on and continues to bring joy to people in the world,” Rodgers said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Dami Olotu as Tundun’s freshman year resident advisor; Tomi Olotu was her RA.