In the early morning after their son, Bailey, died in a one-car crash April 14, Dan and Melinda Connery drove to Oregon High School, where Bailey had been an admired and stellar student in his senior year.
What they saw astonished them: More than 500 students stood outside in a semi-circle and grieved quietly in peace. Dan and Melinda stood back at a respectful distance.
“All you could hear,” Melinda said, “were the birds chirping.”
After nearly an hour, students noticed Bailey’s parents. They formed a line and, one by one, offered condolences.
“We reminded them to hug their moms and dads,” Dan said, “and any younger or older siblings, too.”
Bailey’s death devastated his peers and the community. Oregon High School’s current senior class already lost one student, Allyson Norland, in a car crash in February 2015.
Bailey – who turned 18 less than one month before his crash – appeared primed for a career in medical research. He spent four days per week from 1-5 p.m. serving an apprenticeship as a University of Wisconsin-Madison lab assistant in the neuroscience department.
It was heady college material, and Bailey loved it. He planned to study biology, with an emphasis on research, at UW-Madison this fall.
“He was a very heavy thinker,” Dan said during an interview alongside Melinda Tuesday afternoon.
Melinda concurred, then added: “He was fun. Even though he was serious and studious, there was a silly side, too.”
Dan then showed a short clip one of Bailey’s classmates sent him. It shows Bailey mugging at the camera while comically tossing snack chips toward his mouth.
At about 2:45 p.m. April 14, Bailey’s car veered off the two-lane South Syene Road, a few blocks north of Byrne Road, in Fitchburg. His car rolled over and hit a tree. Dane County Sheriff’s officers suspect speed was the factor.
When Fitchburg police arrived, the vehicle already had caught fire. Bailey died at the scene.
Why the crash happened remains a mystery, however.
Earlier that day, while at UW, Bailey had become sick to his stomach after lunch. He vomited “a couple of times,” Dan said. A scientist who hired Bailey told him to go home and rest.
Those facts have left unanswered questions that Dan and Melinda know won’t be resolved. Why was Bailey – hardly a reckless teen, his parents said – speeding home? Was he getting sick again while he drove? Did he reach for a water bottle while not realizing how fast he was going?
It is likely Bailey was unconscious before the car became engulfed in flames. The first person at the scene said he was unable to remove an unresponsive Bailey from the seat belt. The Dane County Medical Examiner’s office told Bailey’s parents that Bailey had little soot in his lungs, indicating that he was not breathing when the fire began.
Outpouring of support
The neighbor of a family friend has started a GoFundMe appeal to cover funeral costs. By Tuesday night, $4,700 of the $5,000 goal was raised.
Dan and Melinda requested that, in lieu of flowers, attendees may donate to St. James School. Bailey attended St. James Catholic Church in Madison from kindergarten through eighth grade, commuting from Oregon since third grade.
The Connery family tries to keep busy and appreciated the overwhelming outpouring of support after Bailey’s death. Bailey had a 15-year-old brother, Kieran, a freshman at Oregon, and a 6-year-old brother, Riley, who is a kindergartner at St. James.
Riley shot baskets at an indoor Nerf hoop Tuesday. To a religious-educated child, Melinda said, Riley knows only that his brother “went to heaven.”
Bittersweet events have happened, too. Melinda ordered a small poster-sized photo from Bailey’s senior picture the day before he died. The photo arrived Monday and was hung in a prominent spot.
On Tuesday, Dan displayed proudly one of Bailey’s science notebooks. The handwriting is so neat it looks a computerized type. Before starting his work at UW, Bailey worked in the bakery at Bill’s Food Center, where, among his duties, he decorated cakes.
In recent days, Melinda said many of Bailey’s peers have mentioned that he led by example.
“He was wise beyond his years,” Dan added. “He had a desire to do good.”