There is no roadside cross for Caleb Whiteleather.
Nearly one year after the 18-year-old Beaufort County resident’s death in an automobile crash, his parents, Reed and Christine Whiteleather, have eschewed the traditional flowers and crosses on the side of the road in favor of a unique memorial with more of a message.
The memorial comes in the form of a billboard located inches from the spot where Caleb took his last breath.
“We wanted to put a face to the tragedy,” said Christine, a job coach at Battery Creek High School in Beaufort. “This allows people to not just hear or speculate about what happened but see it as well.”
And what a face it does put on a tragic event.
Caleb Whiteleather was, by all appearances, an outgoing college freshman dedicated to his family, his friends and his church. When he left his parents’ Bluffton home on Jan. 6, 2017, he was headed up S.C. 462 back to Winthrop University after the holiday break.
He didn’t have enough time to react, however, when a vehicle driven by Ridgeland resident Christopher Lenning crossed the center line and struck Whiteleather head-on. Whiteleather died at the scene.
Lenning, who was later proven to be intoxicated at the time, fled.
The man responsible for the crash is now in prison for the next 15 years.
The victim has his forever-youthful face on a billboard.
In an age of social media posts and website perpetuity, seeing an actual billboard as you’re driving on the road where someone died is convicting. You can click off website memorials, but you can’t avoid a face such as Caleb’s staring at you on the road. Beaufort has many everyday monuments, parks and bridges named for people who died in the course of duty, but S.C. 462 in nearby Jasper now has its own kind of commemoration.
“Caleb was always determined and motivated by having ideas he could do something with,” Christine said.
Similarly, his parents began their journey toward a memorial by locating the owner of the vacant billboard. They found that they could rent the space for at least six months if they could help clean it up.
As Reed, a construction worker in Bluffton, began that process, Christine went to work determining what the message would be.
“We spend so much on research for disease, but impaired driving is something we already know is preventable,” she said. “We don’t have to figure out why it happens, just how it can stop.”
On one side of the billboard, a picture of Caleb sits alongside a list of his attributes. On the other, a silhouette of Caleb surrounded by surviving friends and family joins the warning that drinking and driving isn’t a decision with solitary consequences.
The internal motivation of avoiding a DUI is one thing, but externally thinking of who else you might be putting at risk by drinking and driving is another.
At the very least, two entire families were forever affected by a needless accident. Getting the billboard up the week before Christmas and two weeks before New Year’s Eve may, indeed, have already prevented more poor decisions. We’ll likely never know about most of them.
But Caleb’s story lives on.
Ryan Copeland is a Beaufort native. He can be reached at email@example.com.