By Steve Lang, News and Publications

Zuzu Verk was named after Zuzu Bailey, a character in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” On Thursday evening (Feb. 9), an estimated 600 persons gathered to remember the short but wonderful life of the Sul Ross State University student, whose disappearance and death attracted national and international media attention and also forged tight community bonds.

The celebration of life was held in the new outdoor classroom and amphitheater, which has been named in Zuzu’s honor.

Sul Ross President Dr. Bill Kibler, Zuzu’s fellow students, a faculty member, law enforcement representatives, a former superviser and Zuzu’s father, Glenn, all spoke of the diverse impacts the 21-year-old Natural Resource Management major had on their lives.

Smart. Smiley. Sassy. Dedicated. Determined. Driven. Confident. Compassionate. Caring.

Kibler noted that in the midst of sadness in Zuzu’s passing, “our spirits have been lifted by all that she meant to so many.” He said she was drawn “to the majesty and wonder of this land,” and added that five words came to mind: presence, comfort, peace, strength and love. The presence of God helps to bring comfort and peace.
“We can rest in the strength we receive from the love of our Lord and the love we receive from each other,” he said, adding that Zuzu and her family would forever be members of the larger university and community family.

Ray Bullock, chaplain for the Alpine Police Department and Brewster County Sheriff’s Office, said that despite the tragedy, life continues, but a life that includes Zuzu.

“If we had our way this evening, we would whisk you up as her family and we would take you away from here. We would take you away from the pain and grief, but we can’t,” Bullock said. “We want things to remain the same, but they aren’t, so we go on, but as we go on, we go on with Zuzu and not without her.”

“Hers was a wonderful life,” Bullock added, and referred to Zuzu Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” who handed her father, George, a flower. When petals fell off, she urged her father to paste them back on. Bullock encouraged his listeners to attach Zuzu Verk’s qualities.

“Paste my smile upon your life. Paste my passion on your hearts. Paste my beauty on your behavior. Paste my dreams into your goals.”

Five of Zuzu’s friends and fellow Sul Ross students, made brief remarks of her impact on their lives. Mark Black told of her caring nature, not just for people, but for animals, especially her beloved pronghorns, amphibians and the environment.

“She was aware of the sanctity of life and the importance of living life to its fullest,” he said.

Charles Barrett reflected on the pleasures of arguing political and environmental issues on an almost-daily basis. “I learned a lot from Zuzu; she made me think about things differently,” he said, and added that she pushed him to be a better student of environmental science.

Claire Veronie joined Zuzu on a pronghorn research project and was immediately welcomed as friend and colleague. “She loved her pronghorn and was really good at tracking…I got to learn a lot and I found a friend in Zuzu.”

“Everyone who hasn’t met Zuzu tonight feels like they’ve known her their entire life,” said April Crowder, who expressed Zuzu’s caring side.

Gunner Gardner praised “the beautiful spirit that is Zuzu Verk….It was impossible not to have fun with someone like her. We will always love her as she loved us.”

Dr. Bonnie Warnock, professor and chair of the Department of Natural Resources and the Clint Josey Endowed Chair for Sustainable Ranch Management at Sul Ross, said the “spitfire” that Zuzu was could both endear and frustrate her professors.

“She was so intelligent that she could get things done at the last minute, which is so frustrating for some professors. She would say, ‘Why do a rough draft? The finished product will be great,’ and it was.”

“She was a free spirit and lived life on her terms,” said Warnock, who ended with a quote from Henry David Thoreau:

“All good things are wild and free.”

Alpine Police officer Aaron Villanueva, who was the first to respond to Zuzu’s disappearance last October, referred to the “Zuzu effect” on the entire community.

“I was never fortunate enough to know Zuzu, but I did have the opportunity to know her family…I got to know how wonderful this family is and how wonderful Zuzu must have been,” Villaneuva said. He emphasized the random acts of kindness by civilians, the excellent cooperation among law enforcement agencies and how Alpine pulled together as a community.

“Zuzu has made a huge impact on our little town, and the Zuzu effect has taken on a life of its own.”

Karen Sulewski, superintendent of Texas Parks and Wildlife, Davis Mountains State Park, supervised Zuzu as an intern. She cited her diligence, attention to detail, energy and zest for life.

Sulewski quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson: “It is not the length of life, but the depth of life,” adding, “in her 22 years, she lived an entire life.”

“Grief is the price you pay for love. Thanks for sharing Zuzu with us.”

Pam Kibler sang “The Long and Winding Road,” by the Beatles, one of Zuzu’s favorite musical groups, then Zuzu’s father, Glenn, concluded the tributes.

Flanked by his wife, Lori, and son, Miles, Glenn Verk said that “growing up, she excelled in anything and everything she set her mind to,” and reflected on her ability to make friends easily.

“No one is poor if you have friends. Zuzu is the richest person I know.” Glenn Verk said his family never tires of thanking the community and university for its many kindnesses.

“She loved this school and community and you loved her back,” he said, adding that she will always be remembered. Referring to #findzuzu, the social media hashtag that spread the word of her disappearance, Glenn Verk said, “We did find her. It is my prayer that we continue finding Zuzu, in our hearts, always and forever.”

A slide show to the music of the Beatles’ “There are Places (I Remember)” and John Lennon’s “Imagine” concluded the service.

The Zuzu Verk Memorial Scholarship Fund in Natural Resource Management has been established. Donations may be sent to: C/O SRSU Office of External Affairs, PO Box C-114, Alpine, TX 79832,  (432) 837-8892.

To give online, go to the the Sul Ross webpage, click on “Giving,” then click on “GIVE ONLINE,” and go to “Zuzu Verk Memorial Scholarship Fund,” or go to the following link:

Sul Ross and Alpine community remember Zuzu at celebration of life in new outdoor classroom and amphitheater named in her honor. (Photo by Noah Fields)