The hospital, usually cold and clinical, was warmed with hundreds of people as they waited in line to take their turn through the revolving door of his room, just as they had anywhere he called home. The halls echoed with laughter and tears of students, family, and friends. They had been there since just hours after the accident and stayed until this night when they would all say goodbye.
The next day, all of Bonfire, his friends, and his family killed a tree in his honor. To this day, cookies cut from it still hang in homes and offices. A memorial service was held, moved from the campus All Faiths Chapel to Rudder Auditorium in order to accommodate the crowd. Aggies of every stripe, friends and family from afar, Bonfire, Corps, Non-Reg, Yell Leaders, students, faculty… Rudder was standing room only. Again, laughter and tears filled the space.
Throughout – as he would have wanted – Bonfire continued its work. Before that season began, he had made a scale model of the new Bonfire Stack. Centerpole was a long branch, and there were four smaller sticks around it. The rest of the structure was twigs, meticulously snapped to length. Each twig touched the ground, longer ones in the middle and shortest on the outside to make the wedding-cake shape. When everyone had seen this model of what was to come, he laughed, doused it with fuel, and set it on fire. Untold hours of work were up in flames not as bright as his beaming grin. Sparks flickered against the familiar glint in his proud eyes.
Bonfire knew that he was there in spirit when the first off-campus Centerpole and its supporting poles arrived, only weeks after he passed. Everything in Aggieland has a name and story. The four poles at the center of this new construction would be no different. Though they didn’t have a name when they arrived on site, before they were tamped in marking the beginning of the first Stack off campus, they did have a name… Windle Sticks.
“Everyone innately wanted to follow him”
From the start of his career in college, Levi Garrett Windle was a force of nature. His soaring personality, infectious charm, and contagious laugh earned him recognition, so much so that he was eventually picked up to be a Chief for Walton Hall in 2000. “He was so proud of Walton,” said Brady Bates, one of Levi’s best friends since high school.
His mere presence was inspiring to everyone around him. His personality drew in people, making him a leader without him even trying. As Matt Belcik ’04, Levi’s brother in dorm leadership and Grey Pot buddy, recalls “He did not have to have a specific type of leadership style, because everyone innately wanted to follow him.”
In Ol’ Army, K-Ramp in Walton was its own entity that called itself “K Dorm”. Many of its residents were on their second or third victory lap on their slow but deliberate course to graduation. As Dan Williams ‘99, noted it was a type of “retirement community.” Because of this, any freshmen placed there risked missing the full dorm experience as they fell into the endless rounds of 42 with the olds of K Dorm. The guys were their own family. They played intramurals together, had their weekly “K Grub” cookout, and had each other’s backs.
When Levi first arrived in K Dorm, Williams took him under his wing. As many apprenticeships start, this one began with an errand. Williams sent Levi to pick up some things from a gas station. Levi was enthusiastic, and a fast friendship was formed. Williams hadn’t always lived in K Dorm, and made a point to share the experiences outside of K Dorm. Levi paid attention. In his enthusiasm, he would even resort to calling Williams at all hours to hear stories and ask about traditions. Still, Levi was largely content to lift Aggies’ spirits in their various pursuits from his roost in K Ramp. Or from the Chicken.
The Bird and Other Stories
In the Dixie Chicken’s strict Don Ganter era, nobody else would even think about trying what Levi did routinely. In one of the rare stories fit for print, Matt Belcik recalls with laughter the night he found Levi stripped down to pineapple boxers leading yells from on top of a Dixie Chicken table. Meanwhile, other patrons were routinely escorted out of the Bird for leaving a beer near a pool table. Nobody else but Levi could get away with being Levi at the Bird. “He could talk himself into or out of anything”, Belcik said.
Levi’s joy knew no bounds. As one story from his memorial service goes, he once found himself in a jail cell. When his friend Guy Crump came to pick him up, Levi was surrounded by fellow detainees, regaling them with stories as they laughed through tears. “Holy crap,” Crump thought “the guy even makes friends in jail!”
For all of the fun he had and shared, there were things he took very seriously. Dr. Joe Townsend ’67, Associate Dean for Students in the College of Agriculture experienced firsthand what may have been Levi’s highest priority… and it wasn’t his grades. “He loved Bonfire as much as he loved anything in this world.” Dr. Joe made one request of Levi though… put school somewhere in his top five priorities, “somewhere between three and five after Bonfire and the Dixie Chicken.”
If there’s a Bonfire in heaven he’s probably a Redpot leading the wayDr. Joe
Levi didn’t always lead Bonfire. That had changed the night Bonfire fell. K-Ramp RA and close friend, Dylan Misslin ’02 recounts “when I found out it fell, I went to wake up the ramp and Levi was instrumental in that. We stayed out all night and I think that’s just where it clicked with him.”
And click it did. As a Crew Chief, Levi led Walton Hall through a year without Bonfire. He prepared his boys to lead Walton into the Woods for Unity Project in 2002. The Bonfire that year was a pile of smaller trees and brush, not a Stack. There was no Load, the job that had defined Walton for years. But Walton found purpose in their new task behind their indefatigable Levi and the Crew Chiefs he trained.
Having proved that Aggies were up to the task in 2002, it was decided that Aggies would erect a Bonfire Stack in 2003. It was a tremendous task, demanding extraordinary leadership. It required people who didn’t care what people thought, who did not hesitate to do what they thought was right in the way they thought was right, and who could impart enthusiasm and courage on each other and every Aggie they met. Levi was immediately selected for the task. Levi was unique among the eight Grey Pots that led Bonfire in 2003. As Matt Belcik said “Grey Pots weren’t always nice, but Levi was the balance.” The Greys would be stronger for that.
They and every Aggie would call on Levi to make themselves better. And the Woods yielded to their axes and their motivation, destined for the Bonfire Stack. But then tragically, only weeks into the season, Levi suffered a fall climbing a fence at a friend’s house. He sustained a neck injury. Over the next few days, friends and family from all corners rushed to be by his side, to pray and wish and hope for him to be better. On October 19, 2003, he passed away, surrounded by hundreds of people who loved him.
“I hope my son is half the man that he was”
So says Brody Windle, Levi’s brother. His son’s name is Levi. At last count, there are at least three boys named after Levi Windle. They are living memories of Levi. In this way, Levi is still here. “It’s hard to be sad,” Brody said. “He only spent 23 years making a legacy that other people spend a lifetime on.”
There are other memorials. There’s Levi’s name on the wall above the troughs in the men’s room at the Dixie Chicken. It’s been there for 15 years. The only acceptable form of chaw in Walton Hall is Levi Garrett. In all these and many other ways – serious and lighthearted – Levi’s memory resonates.
And of course, there are the Windle Sticks that form the framework of Bonfire today. “He probably wouldn’t like us making such a scene about him,” said Dion McInnis ’03, Levi’s Grey Pot buddy. “But if you really insisted, he’d probably let you. You would just have to tell him why first. And when you can answer that question – why do we remember Levi – you’ll know how to be a better person yourself.” He continued, “He was exceptional, but he would tell you that none of us then and none of you now deserve any less. His exceptionalism should reflect our own.”
Levi Windle and all that he stood for lives every year in the heart of Bonfire. Although this generation of Aggies may not have had the privilege of knowing him personally, we know his joy and enthusiasm and motivation as it has been passed down over the years. By his leadership then we know his legacy now. It is our privilege to hold his memory and this Tradition while we can, and to pass it to the next generation.
We are incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity to participate in Student Bonfire during our college careers. Through this organization we have discovered who we are and who we strive to be with the help of all those involved in and out of our dorm communities. We have gained a family and a home.
People like Levi, who live their passions and lead selflessly, are our motivation to follow suit, and teach the future generations to live in the same way in order to maintain the true Aggie Spirit. Aggies boast that Texas A&M is a special place, apart from other universities and anywhere in the world, but to truly claim that we must actively contribute in the ways that Levi personified. We hope that you take today to reflect on the person that you are and who you want to become.