Steuernagel remembered by colleagues as a ‘force of nature’

Christina Stavale

Poli-sci professor died Friday night

Molly Merryman remembers Gertrude “Trudy” Steuernagel as an “excellent force of nature,” full of strength and integrity.

“When you’re looking at academics, you don’t often find a very capable balance between those people who can be amazingly intellectual and amazingly powerful in thought, but also can find joy in very simple pleasures,” said Merryman, an associate professor of justice studies. “Trudy had that balance.”

Steuernagel, a professor of political science, died Friday evening, about a week after being found beaten in her Franklin Township home.

She had been in critical condition at Akron City Hospital after sustaining severe head injuries.

Her son, Sky Walker, 18, was charged earlier Friday with attempted murder and assault on an officer. However, he will first have a competency hearing before the Probate Court. As of Friday, the hearing date has not yet been set.

A loving relationship

In a guest column that ran in October 2007, Steuernagel wrote that Sky was diagnosed with autism shortly before his third birthday. In it, she described their relationship.

“Neither Sky nor I will ever win the Nobel Peace Prize,” she wrote. “Neither of us will write the great American novel. We will, however, make each other laugh. We’ll challenge each other to be better people, to be a better mother and a better son.

“He is my dance partner and I his. Sometimes we step on each other’s toes and sometimes we navigate with great grace. I’ve learned when to lead and when to follow. I know Sky will continue to leave a trail for me, a trail of sparkles.”

Merryman, a friend of Steuernagel’s for more than 12 years, said she thinks Steuernagel would not want people to define Sky by this one incident.

“Sky is a very loving child,” she said. “There was a lot to delight in with him, and Trudy did.”

From time to time, Steuernagel and Sky visited Merryman at her farm.

“Sky would walk for hours, and we would have dinner,” she said. “Sky loved my dogs. Like any kid, he would feed the dogs from the table. There was more to him than this one story.”

Steven Hook, chair of the political science department, said he watched Sky grow up alongside his own children in Kent public schools, and was always amazed with the progress he made and the way Steuernagel and Sky worked together.

“She would like people to know that Sky was a wonderful boy, with a big heart,” he said, “and he was a constant joy to Trudy, despite all the difficulties they had.”

Continuing a cause

Merryman asked students and faculty who want to support Steuernagel to sign a petition in the works that would ask Kent State to cover autism in its health care plan.

“That was a struggle Trudy fought during her entire time at Kent State University,” she said. ” … Trudy wasted away countless hours writing letters and making phone calls.”

The petition will be available to sign at a celebration of Steuernagel’s life, scheduled at 3 p.m. Friday. The location will be determined sometime tomorrow.

Hook asked students to keep Sky in their prayers, and encouraged anyone who knew Steuernagel to attend Friday’s celebration.

“It’s going to take our department some time to recover from this, but we’re very grateful for all of the outpouring of sympathy and support that we’ve received,” he said. “And that’s going to help us as we try to continue into the rest of the semester.”

Contact news editor Christina Stavale at [email protected].