SAVOY – A family clinging to fading hope that the remains of a Chinese scholar brutally killed more than two years ago may someday be found gathered Friday for a memorial service that included only her photograph and their own memories of her life.
Held only weeks after Yingying Zhang's killer was convicted and sentenced to life in prison and only two days after the family's attorneys held a news conference to explain why recovery of the dismembered remains believed to be buried deep in a landfill likely will never be recovered, her father, Ronggao Zhang, told stories that he hoped would convey what made his daughter so special.
In Mandarin, his words translated for those sitting before him at the First Baptist Church in Savoy, just a few miles from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana campus where Zhang attended school, he talked about how hard she worked at school and how she excelled despite the financial struggles of a family that could simply not afford to pay for the tutors that are available to wealthier students. He spoke of a daughter who was willing to give up a scholarship to someone even needier than her, and who tutored other students "who struggled with school."
And he spoke of his daughter's small kindnesses to her family, from all the times she walked her little brother to school, to the time on her mother's birthday she turned out the lights and surprised her mother with a birthday cake, a gesture that moved her mother to tears.
"My daughter was such a good and kind person, she was excellent in everything she did,' he said. "We never had to worry about her. Now she's gone. I miss her so much."
He did not speak of the trial that ended last month with a jury convicting and sentencing 30-year-old Brendt Christensen, a former University of Illinois doctoral student, to life in prison. As close as he came to the details his family's attorneys shared Monday about what Christensen told his attorneys he did with Zhang's body, was to reiterate what his family has said since Zhang vanished. "Now our number one wish is to still find Yingying and bring her home," he said.
And two years removed from hearing that his 26-year-old daughter had vanished, he urged the community to do what his daughter always did: Look out for others.
"We hope that everyone can take care of international students here and that everyone can stay safe so their parents won't be worried," he said. And, he added, "Students, please be safe. The semester is starting and don't let your parents worry about you."