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After tragedy, Dad never stopped reaching out

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Even after Ron Light could no longer find the words locked inside his damaged brain, he found ways to communicate. For him, showing was more important than telling.

“He spoke words minimally, but I didn’t need to hear the words to know what he meant,” said his son, Chris Light.

No one has ever said an unkind word about his father, Light said, because his father was never unkind – not in the 37 years he lived before that evening in May 1989, not in the 31 years he lived afterward until his death July 24 at age 68.

That evening took so much – Ron’s speech, the use of his legs, the use of his right arm. It took his livelihood as a Sandia National Laboratories research project supervisor, and much of his talents as a musician, photographer and artist who created serigraphs that captured the sunsets over the Sandias.

It took his young daughter’s life.

Jane, Ron and Christopher Light in February of 1991. Ron Light died July 24 at age 68. The Light family was out for a walk in May 1989 when a woman deliberately drove into them. (Journal)

But it hadn’t taken everything.

“The man was all positivity, determination, kindness and love,” his son said. “He could have been bitter, angry, pissed off. But he just wasn’t.”

I learned of Ron’s passing last week. Since then, I’ve heard from several of you readers who have never forgotten what happened to the Light family May 1, 1989, when madness got behind the wheel.

Ron and Jane, his wife of 17 years then, were out for an evening stroll with Chris, 4, in their Northeast Heights neighborhood. Six-year-old daughter Rachel was riding along on her bike, her strawberry blond hair streaming behind her.

They hadn’t seen Judith Anne Neely’s 1987 Chevrolet barreling toward them from behind, rounding the bend in the 7100 block of Kiowa NE.

But Jane had heard everything – the car’s engine gunning, the wheels screeching, the rubber bumping against curb and onto sidewalk, the thud of metal against bodies, the screams, the silence.

When she and I spoke in 2014 for a column on the 25th year since the crash, she told me she still hears those sounds, still trembles at the sight of children riding their bikes.

Rachel died that night. Ron suffered a traumatic brain injury and was in a coma for weeks. Chris’ right femur was so shattered it required months in traction and learning to walk again.

Jane was not physically injured, but she was scarred by watching those she loved be taken so cruelly from her.

It had been no accident.

Neely, then a 41-year-old retired Navy lieutenant, was angry, unhinged and un-medicated that night, a woman with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

“Is she dead? I hope so,” Neely asked police about the little girl on the bike. “If she lives, I won’t go to prison.”

Neely got her wish. A jury found her guilty, but mentally ill, of first-degree murder, three counts of attempted murder and two counts of aggravated battery. Her sentence was life in prison plus 27 years.

Ron, too, received a life sentence, but one he didn’t deserve. After nearly two years in rehab hospitals, Jane brought him back to their home on Shoshone NE. But caring for him was difficult. In 1992, she turned the home into the Four Corners LightHouse, a nonprofit group home for men with brain injuries, including Ron. Eventually, the nonprofit failed, leaving only Ron in the home, helped by caretakers.

By then, Ron’s parents had assumed guardianship and initiated divorce proceedings against Jane in the hopes of allowing her a chance at resuming a normal life – something, she told me in 2014, she had not wanted.

“My mom is the most selfless person I know,” Chris said. “But at some point it became hard being in Albuquerque where everybody knew us as ‘that family.’ ”

Jane and Chris moved to Durango, where no one knew about that evening in May, in search of a semblance of normalcy, but always connected to Ron, calling him at least once a week. Jane eventually remarried, had another daughter, divorced, worked her way up the public school ladder to become the executive assistant of the Colorado Department of Education secretary.

Chris Light

Chris became a lawyer and now has a private practice in both Colorado and California. Among his specialties is representing clients devastated by traumatic brain injuries.

“Chris had every right to be a total mess-up, but my gosh he has just done so well,” Jane told me in 2014. “When he was little, he used to say he wanted to be Superman because Superman helps people. That’s what he has become. He helps people.”

But Chris said it’s his father who is his hero.

“My father was the epitome of strength and courage, love and understanding,” he said, speaking from his office in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Today, no sign, scuff mark or memorial of what happened that evening in May 31 years ago remains. Neely died in 2018 in the Women’s Correctional Facility in Grants at age 70.

A 15-minute walk north of Kiowa NE is the Rachel K. Light Park, a soccer field dedicated to the little girl with strawberry blond hair.

Jane, who resumed her family name of Jane Schoenfeld, retired in 2018 and moved back to New Mexico. She is learning, her son said, to prioritize her own needs over those of others for the first time.

After years in assisted living homes in Lawrence, Kansas and Denver, Chris and his mother moved Ron back to New Mexico in April 2018. He lived out his days in Rio Rancho where he could watch the sunsets over the Sandias, eat green chile and be near Jane, who remained his best friend.

He was the first person Chris and wife Nicole told when she was pregnant. Little Avery Light was born on a New Year’s Day, just two days before Ron’s birthday on Jan. 3. Grandfather and grandson became just as close as that.

“One of the things Dad did to show his love was to reach out with his good arm for your hand, so he and my son spent a lot of time holding hands,” Chris said. “I was grateful for that.”

There are tragedies that leave their indelible scar on a community, and what happened that evening in May 31 years ago left a deep scar. But the Lights did their best not to be defined by the worst thing in their lives. Ron Light, always reaching for life and for love, showed them how.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column.

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