Entering McFarland High School’s gym, nearly 800 attendees at senior Cora Rugland’s memorial service passed two large signs: “She would want you to celebrate” and “Have some fun in honor of Cora.”
Rugland’s family chose to mix an upbeat mood – pre-service music, for instance, included Lady Gaga’s “Applause” – with the overwhelming somber feelings during an extraordinary hour-long service.
At 17, Rugland left an indelible impression on those she knew, from friends and students to teachers and other adults. Her death in a car accident Oct. 24 in Jefferson County magnified what positive effect she had on peers and casual acquaintances.
Senior Heidi Mahoney, her voice breaking at times, addressed the crowd with unbridled emotion.
“Close friends knew her as sassy, respectful, kind, lively, funny, selfless, opinionated,” Mahoney said, “and a big booty woman we grew to love.”
McFarland English teacher Jennifer Brennan, who taught Rugland in a composition class during her junior year, spoke on behalf of faculty and staff.
“We could offer mounds of superlatives about her work ethic,” Brennan said, “and her strong opinions she shared – mostly in a respectful way – and her unfailing spirit. The best part about Cora was her unique ‘Cora-ness.’
“She made us laugh with her silly dances. She made us think about her personal philosophies – she forced us to think about her personal philosophies – and she made us smile just by being her.”
Brennan read a passage from an essay Rugland wrote in her class: “The best decision I ever made was to accept who I was and embrace it. I found peace in myself and I have never been happier.”
Eight poster-sized photo montages filled a hallway. It showed how involved Rugland was in school and extracurricular activities. An honor roll student, Rugland played volleyball, softball, worked part-time at a Stoughton grocery store, mentored a freshman student, was named junior prom queen and played trumpet in the band.
The latter group performed a tribute to her at the service.
Pastor Scott Marrese-Wheeler, who has ties to McFarland High School, led the service. He noted how McFarland High Schools student Zach Sterner had created the beautiful five-foot tall portrait of Rugland’s face last week to accent the service’s stage background.
Marrese-Wheeler also said that Rugland would say to her mom, Kristine Hosford, “YOLO, mom.” The acronym “YOLO” stands for “You only live once.”
Everyone speaking at the service described Rugland’s vibrant and ever-present smile. Near the ceremony’s end, speakers played Uncle Kracker’s “Smile” while photos of Rugland were displayed on a large screen.
Afterward, everyone could gather in two spots: the school’s cafeteria for refreshments or the school’s Gym B.
In that second gym was an amazing sight: A giant, inflatable bouncy house that the family urged attendees to play in.