CARBONDALE — The young man in the photographs appears full of life. He poses with friends, smiling; he hunches over a laptop, absorbed in a project.
Assembled by SIUC faculty and students, two memorials in the Communications Building at Southern Illinois University Carbondale honor the life of Aaron Banez, the student who died after being struck by a freight train on April 29 near the East Pleasant Hill Road overpass in Carbondale.
Banez was double-majoring in theater and cinema and photography, and he was secretary of Movie Camera Movement, a registered student organization.
The display cases also contain one of Banez’s sweaters, his skateboard and written tributes from friends. A nearby computer plays a looped video that includes some of his film projects and clips of Banez dancing.
H.D. Motyl, associate professor and interim chair of radio, television and digital media at SIUC, said he helped coordinate the memorial in the Cinema and Photography Department — the other is located in the Theater Department — because for so many of Banez’s peers, he simply disappeared from their lives one day without warning.
“Here are the reminders of him, which of course, are sad reminders; but that he doesn’t have to disappear, that he is still here,” Motyl said.
Motyl was helping Banez secure an undergraduate research grant for his senior thesis. The 20-year-old planned to combine his love of dance and his love of film to create 12 dance videos representing the zodiac signs.
“He had a ton (of good ideas). He was constantly working,” Motyl said.
Banez often took on between 18 and 21 credit hours per semester; although he was finishing his third year at SIU, he had the class standing of a senior.
“He was an overachiever,” Motyl said.
Michael Page, a senior studying mass communications and media arts, is president of MCM and worked closely with Banez on student projects; they were also co-workers at the SIU Recreation Center and good friends outside of class.
In the days after Banez’s death, people shared stories about how he had supported them in tough moments. Page was struck by how many lives Banez had touched.
“What was really mystifying to me was, as more people that I knew and didn’t know were sharing stories, I was thinking, ‘How did he have time to make that impact on you, when I thought he was busy supporting me?’ So I suppose the best way to say it is that he made you feel important, or made you feel seen,” Page said.
Banez could often be seen riding his penny board across campus.
“For people who don’t know Aaron personally, what they probably remember was that he was making movies, dancing and on the penny board — and literally sometimes doing those three things at the same time,” Page said.
Antonio Martinez, the faculty advisor for MCM and an associate professor of cinema and photography, said he was always impressed by how adeptly Banez resolved conflicts within the group.
“Any time we had a conflict, internal or external … when (Aaron) spoke, everyone listened. He was the voice of reason. He knew how to equalize and mitigate any sort of ongoing conflicts,” Martinez said.
“It was almost like the timing of a professional comedian — he just knew what the room needed,” Page added.
As an artist, Banez trusted his instincts. He might come up with an idea for a film early in the day, shoot it later in the afternoon, stay up all night editing and have it online the next day, Page said.
“He was impulsive and quick. Really the same kinds of adjectives to describe Aaron as a person could be attributed to him as an artist,” Page said.
Page said seeing the memorials for his friend — particularly the videos of him dancing — can be both joyful and painful.
“It’s nice to see him dancing and whatnot as I’m going to class, and it was cathartic, those first few days. But … Aaron’s energy is definitely very present at those memorials, so it can reopen new wounds,” Page said.