On the day of Matthew Shepard’s funeral, Casper was pounded by snow. Nearly 19 inches fell on Oct. 16 and 17, a record for the month, and the deluge split down the middle a 50-year-old elm tree on the side of Debbie McCullar’s house.
McCullar, who sits on the school board and taught Shepard at Dean Morgan Junior High, will forever associate the two. When she recalls that anecdote at her central Casper home, she prescribes no specific meaning to it, no cosmic relation between the death of the sweet kid she knew and the splitting of the tree outside her home.
She just knows they happened together and that she’ll always associate the two. What more is there to say?
McCullar is like that. Blunt but thoughtful. The longtime educator has earned nervous side-glances from school district employees after making sharp comments that a spokesperson may prefer to remain out of earshot of reporters.
She’s quiet when she talks about Matt, as she calls him, laughing and taking pauses in equal measure. She remembers when he came to visit her, after he’d enrolled at the University of Wyoming. It had been years since he graduated from Dean Morgan, but he came to thank her for being loving and welcoming when he returned to ninth grade after a long absence from school.
He told her how excited he was to start at UW, she says, and that he had come out as gay.
“No surprise,” McCullar laughs now.
She remembers that he played Mr. Big in a production of “Get Smart.” She laughs again. Tiny Matt, playing Mr. Big.
He was much more than what he became after he was murdered, she says.
“He was funny. He was curious. He liked to goof around, but he was a pretty good student. He was just a good kid, a sweet kid,” McCullar says. “He was a good listener, and I think that’s one of the things that kids liked about him. He listened; he wasn’t judgmental.”
She looks away for a moment.
“It’s been a lot of years.”
Twenty years. Time goes on, she says, and people forget.
“It’s kind of like Sept. 11 and how horrifying that was,” McCullar continues. “Time goes on, and fewer people remember it and don’t understand the impact that it had and the change it created. I think that Matthew’s death is kind of like that. Time goes on. The people that knew him are now adults and not in school; they are raising their own children and hopefully they’ll remember Matt in instances where there are kids they know are struggling.”
But McCullar hasn’t forgotten.
She remembers how the girls loved him. How he listened without judgment. How the tiny kid stood on stage as Mr. Big.