Neither crushing headaches nor a somber diagnosis could dull Stefanie Martin’s wit.
The Clemson University semester was not yet a month in when a roommate suggested Stefanie visit the campus clinic and get those odd headaches checked out. A clinician there wanted her to get an MRI. Probably freshman stress. But just in case.
Then, on Sept. 10, the 18-year-old phoned her mother in Columbia with a deadpan question.
“Guess whose favorite daughter has a brain tumor?” Jana Martin remembered.
Not once, to her mother’s knowledge, did that favorite daughter shed a tear of self-pity in the three months she knew of the cancer. Maybe it is the beautiful invincibility of youth, but ahead of a Saturday memorial service in Columbia, friends and family are remembering a young woman with a zest for life that outshone her ailment.
During that phone call, Martin told her mother she wanted to go to work that night, sling some food at Moe’s Southwest Grill, get her mind off of the thing. Later, she named it Marla, a nod to a Fight Club movie line: “If I did have a tumor, I’d name it Marla.” The next months were filled with trips home, doctors visits and a surgery to relieve fluid pressure, but she always returned to school.
The Clemson princess, her Duke University neurologist called her, the girl forever outfitted in Tiger regalia.
Martin was scheduled to see that doctor Tuesday, had fussed to her parents that she had to be back in time for her German final on Wednesday. German born herself to parents who grew up in East Germany, she was fluent in the language.
Steffen Martin arrived at his daughter’s Young Hall dorm room Sunday evening and learned from a roommate that she’d had a headache and was sleeping.
He tried to rouse her, and soon he called his wife. Their daughter, he said, wasn’t responding, wasn’t breathing.
Stefanie never woke, complications from a tumor that doctors told the Martins was large and in the center of the brain. Physicians did not suspect she was a terminal patient. A surgery to remove the tumor could wait until semester’s end, they told the family. For a time, Stefanie insisted it wait until summer before finally relenting.
“I don’t feel bad that she was at Clemson. She loved it there,” Jana Martin said. “As parents, we would have loved to have her home to shelter her. She would not have been happy here being sick – with us treating her like a sick person.”
Martin was a 2014 graduate of a high school magnet program for math and science, and she soaked up travel to cities like Chicago and Paris and area hiking trails with her parents and brother Sebastian, 17.
At Clemson, the Martins said, Stefanie dropped some classes as her recall lulled and exhaustion set in, but their daughter viewed the campus as a second home, a sentiment echoed by students and faculty.
“She loved Clemson, she loved being here, she loved being around her peers, and she was looking forward to coming back next semester,” said Joe Mazer, an assistant professor and associate chair of Clemson’s Department of Communication Studies.
“We remember her as a very, very strong person who was just a joy to be around,” Mazer said.
Mazer and his wife serve as faculty-in-residence in the freshman dormitory complex commonly called “the shoebox,” where they help new Clemson students adjust to college life. They lived two doors down from Stefanie.
An expert in communications and the role they play in forming relationships, he was amazed at how quickly the bond between Stefanie and her dorm mates grew so deep.
“They really only knew each other for a couple of months,” he said. “But they still feel such incredible loss and incredible void in their life with Stefanie’s passing.”
It’s exam week at Clemson, and students are busy hitting the books. Dozens of Stefanie’s friends also have been spending evenings together at Mazer’s place, just talking, being together, eating Krispy Kreme donuts, trying to process their loss, he said.
“Students on the floor are understandably very, very upset,” he said. “The university has done an outstanding job, I think, of making sure those students have the resources they need to manage their grief and to make the transition to completing the semester strong academically.”
Her death came as a shock to many of their friends, because she never let on that she was ill, although she had told Mazer and others early in the semester.
“She was not willing to let her illness define who she was as a person,” he said.
Her death came at a time when Clemson students already were struggling with the deaths of four other students since the start of the semester.
One died from an accident and another by suicide, university officials have said.
Tucker Hipps, a Wren High School graduate and freshman at Clemson, died during a run with fraternity members that remains under investigation.
Kendall Wernet, a junior management major from Arden, N.C., died after falling from the radar deck of a cruise ship in Miami.
Stefanie’s death left its mark not only in Clemson but in her hometown of Columbia as well.
She was the one who lifted up her teammates on the track team in high school when things weren’t going well, her coach at Spring Valley High School said.
“She had somehow managed to touch all of their lives,” coach Trina McFadden said. “She was a radiant part of our team.
“It was her personality that kept them together. It was her personality that kind of rallied them when we were doing really bad sometimes and being down and losing. She just had the personality that her just being there changed the whole tone of the team.”
She was an exceptional runner, in track as well as cross country, making the varsity team by her sophomore year, the coach said.
Current students there remember her as the varsity runner who wanted to get to know all the younger members of the team, a rarity in high school athletics, McFadden said. “She made a point to know something about all these girls, even down to our freshmen.”
They plan to frame her jersey and present it to the family at her memorial service at 4 p.m. Saturday at Sandhills Community Church in Columbia, McFadden said.
The coach kept in touch with Stefanie after she graduated in June.
“She never once throughout all this showed that she was sick,” she said. “It kind of took everybody by surprise because she was so positive about it. She never questioned why was this happening.”
The two texted just three weeks ago, and Stefanie remained upbeat, McFadden said.
She was smart, too, the coach said. The school’s Discovery magnet program offers a rigorous curriculum that only the brightest could handle.
“Words can’t adequately describe how we feel about this young lady,” McFadden said. “She had so much potential. She would have changed the world in some way because she already changed Spring Valley.”
Part of her charm, her mother said, was befriending people who otherwise seemed introverted to Stefanie’s extroversion. Her favorite stuffed animal as a child was Eeyore, the oft pessimistic donkey friend of Winnie-the-Pooh.
“She kind of picked up the Eeyores in life,” Jana Martin said. “She liked them and they liked her too. They brought out the best in each other.”
Her brother, Sebastian, said the two siblings complemented one another well, rarely arguing. He is more laid backed to her boisterousness.
“She was a very social person and she didn’t like to see anyone left out,” he said. “If she saw someone alone, she would go over to them.”
“She was always an optimistic person,” he added. “I think she would tell my parents to move on. But that’s easier said than done.”