WOODSTOCK – Looking across her backyard, Carol Fruin can see the home in which Jennifer Kearns lived. When Fruin looks east, she can see Kevin Ziller’s family dairy farm.
These families are forever changed by the deaths of the two young people and Fruin’s own son, Grant.
There are many ties that bind Kearns, Ziller and Grant Fruin. They grew up in rural Huntley within minutes of each other’s front door.
They ran in the same circle of friends. All were proud “farm kids.”
All three were taken too soon.
They were members of 4-H, a group that is working on a memorial in their honor. Their friends and family are fixing up the McHenry County Fairgrounds in time for the fair season.
“This memorial project will provide a lasting testimony to these three kids’ memory and the importance that 4-H has played in all of our lives,” Jennifer’s mother, Dacia Kearns, wrote in a fundraising letter.
The three died within 2½ years of one another.
Kearns died in February in a car accident. She was 19.
Ziller, 21, died in a car accident in 2010.
Grant Fruin was the youngest of the three. He committed suicide in 2009 at age 15.
“It’s just a shame what’s happened to these kids,” said Kearns’ uncle, Frank Kearns.
Frank Kearns led the Huntley Pioneers 4-H Club and spearheaded the memorial efforts.
The three lived in the idyllic countryside where neighbors don’t pass each other without waving. Teenagers ride four-wheelers, have bonfires together or swim in a lake on Carol Fruin’s property – a popular hangout on hot summer days. Their property lines are separated only by farm fields and a winding creek.
“We’re farm families, and the kids would get together a ton,” Carol Fruin said. “It was fun. It still is. We still love it. It’s sad because they’re not there, but we have a lot of memories, a lot of good memories.”
In a place where everybody knows each other, these deaths were widely felt. So when the fairgrounds open this summer, the presence of Kearns, Ziller and Fruin will be felt there, too.
“These three kids all grew up within a stone’s throw from one another,” said Ziller’s father, Dan. “There wasn’t hardly a day that went by when they weren’t in contact with each other.
“Given time, they would have [fixed up the fairgrounds] themselves.”
The pig barn has been gutted and rebuilt with new pens and bleachers. “Hundreds” of volunteers tore out and replaced old concrete. A new wash rack was built and about 2,000 feet of water main was installed. They cleaned the inside of other livestock barns. Volunteers have been working every weekend since Easter.
“[Grant] would love it; he’d be so excited,” Carol Fruin said. “... He loved doing the fair. It was the highlight of his summer.”
All funds for labor and materials were donated by the community.
“So far it would have cost about $175,000 to $180,000, and it’s all been donated,” Frank Kearns said.
Jennifer Kearns was a 2010 graduate of Huntley High School, where she was a member of the National Honor Society and the track team. She had three grand championships in her 4-H career. She also showed steers.
Kevin Ziller was remembered as a devoted farmer who enjoyed life to the fullest. With a big heart and a gentle spirit, he always was willing to lend a helping hand. He showed dairy, beef and pigs at the fair.
Grant Fruin was a sophomore at Marengo High School, where he played football and participated in the Future Farmers of America. He showed steers and pigs at the fair.
Their families know they’d be pleased with how the community rallied around the fair.
“He’d be thrilled,” Carol Fruin said. “Grant has on the biggest smile from heaven. If they could only see it, he’s giving them a big thumbs up. ... I know that Jennifer and Kevin would be, too.”
How to help
Donations can be sent to McHenry County Fair Association, P.O. Box 375, Woodstock, IL 60098. Note on check memo: “Jennifer, Kevin, Grant Barn Project.”