Remembering Bonfire: Ebanks driven by his varied interests

Michael Ebanks after completing his first solo flight in his flying lessons.

Jerry Ebanks describes his son Michael as an original. 

“You’ve heard people talk about walking to the beat of their own drum?” he said. “That’s what he did.”

Michael was a freshman at Texas A&M when he died in the Bonfire collapse on Nov. 18, 1999. Jerry’s stories of Michael’s determination included his efforts in collecting aluminum cans to earn enough money to go to Space Camp. Michael accomplished this twice.

At 16, he worked four part-time jobs to pay for flying lessons, Jerry said. The goal was to become a licensed pilot on his 17th birthday, the minimum age to test with the Federal Aviation Administration. Michael’s plans were foiled because his birthday fell on a Friday, a school day for the student at Newman Smith High School in Carrollton. He took the flying exam on Saturday afternoon, after taking the SAT, and passed. At the Bonfire Memorial on the A&M campus, Michael’s bronze image shows him smiling in front of the fixed-wing single-engine Cessna plane he learned to fly.

Michael also had a passion for music, and Jerry said he taught himself how to play the piano in high school.

“Very often, he had about a 38-hour day,” his father said with a laugh.

Jerry said the desire to attend A&M was influenced by Michael’s older brother, Keith. The first Aggie in the family, who graduated in 1989. Keith was killed in a car accident in 1994.

Michael had been at A&M for less than three months when he died. He celebrated his 19th birthday on Oct. 26. Jerry said that they couldn’t get him to come to Carrollton, where he grew up, for a celebration. So the family got together in College Station instead.

“He talked about Bonfire and Bonfire,” Jerry said. “Oh yeah, and Bonfire.”

Michael’s passion for his interests made an impression on Sara Thornton, a sophomore at A&M in 1999. She was moved to write a letter to his parents about her chance meeting with their son the night before he died.

A portion of Thornton’s letter is engraved in Michael’s portal: “It was Wednesday, November 17, in the MSC Flagroom. He had a sparkle in his eye when he talked about his music. I learned that he was a freshman aerospace engineering major, and I asked him if he planned on studying for his tests any more that night. Again he smiled and told me that more than anything he would probably wind up at Bonfire to help with stack. At that point, I could see the sparkle in his eye again.”

The letter recounts the joy of their introduction and the confusion, worry and grief at learning that Michael was killed just a few hours later. Jerry said he still pulls the letter out to read every once in a while.

“[The collapse] was so shocking when it happened,” Thornton said. “I just thought at the time I met him that he was so infused, so passionate about his music, and I was thinking I was going to see this guy again. He’s going to change the world. I wanted to really memorialize that moment, that interaction, because it was special — because it was an interaction that someone in the future wasn’t going to be able to have with him.”

Thornton and his parents have remained in touch since connecting over the letter. Jerry and his wife, Bulinda, attended her A&M graduation in 2002.

“We’re talking about one of the most inspiring families I’ve ever had the opportunity to meet. They’re mentors to me now,” said Thornton, an attorney in Austin. She will be in attendance at the Bonfire Remembrance ceremony with the Ebanks family this year.

Jerry and Bulinda moved to Aggieland from Carrollton in 2012. Their daughter Cynthia and her husband moved to the area in the late 1990s, before Michael attended A&M. Jerry and Bulinda wanted to be closer after their granddaughter Paulina was adopted and brought home in 2010.

They surprised their daughter and her family with the move one evening over dinner during a visit to College Station.

“I looked at [my wife] with kind of a stupid grin, and she says, ‘Kids, we have something very important to tell you, and we’re not pregnant,’” Jerry recalled with a laugh. “It’s worked out wonderfully.”

The Ebanks have had opportunities to pay tribute to Michael with the university, going as far as Ammon, Jordan, to dedicate an A&M medical clinic built in his name. Jerry is the voice behind the self-guided audio tour at the Bonfire Memorial, and he spoke at its formal dedication in 2004.

In 2016, Michael was a Fish Camp namesake. Jerry said that he and his wife were involved in planning the camp, and they were in attendance for the full four-day camp session in Palestine. On the first evening, he spoke to the freshmen about their son.

“I’m sure you know by now that your namesake is Michael Ebanks, and I imagine you know why he’s not here,” Jerry recalled saying. “I’m his dad, and I’ve got to do the best I can to tell you why he is a namesake and why he’s a model that you must follow.”

Jerry said they have stayed in touch with the students, seeing them around town and visiting with them after they graduated.

“Every once in a while,” he said, “we’d see one of those gangs of counselors and they’d say, ‘You’re my namesake’s dad!’ That’s heartwarming.”

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