Hammond dedicates memorial garden that honors former student Eric Layer

The sounds of laughter, Shakespearean quotes and beautifully performed music filled Hammond School's chapel Saturday morning.

The spirit of Eric Layer, never gone from the school, grew stronger once again.

Three years ago, the 18-year-old Layer lost his battle with cancer during his senior year at Hammond.

Since then, his family and friends have gathered $10,000 donations to build a memorial garden in his honor.

On Saturday, four days after Layer would have turned 22, Father Zahuta Marchin blessed that memorial following a 20-minute service in the chapel.

"It started as a dream, and today it becomes a loving reality," said Debra Layer, Eric's mother.

Hammond headmaster Chris Angel said he is glad the project came to fruition.

"We felt it was important to have a permanent memorial on this campus that will remind us of the spirit of Eric," Angel said.

Layer played soccer, organized pep rallies and acted in school plays even while battling the disease that claimed his life April 28, 2006. His strength in the face of peril continues to inspire the friends he cherished.

Many of them returned to Hammond for Saturday's service. Now seniors in college, they said memories of Layer's infectious friendship and passion for life routinely enter their minds.

"He was the glue that held us all together," said Henry McMaster, now a senior at USC. "He was truly inspirational. He was known for pep rallies. He was the one who everybody looked to to lift people up."

Added Wes Troyer, a University of Georgia senior: "He's hard to forget about."

Angel said the memorial ensures that.

It includes a curved brick wall with a stone bench and a stone pot containing plants in front of it.

The inscription, below his name and Class of 2006, is a quote from Shakespeare's "MacBeth" that reads:

"He only lived but till he was a man.

The which no sooner had his prowess confirmed.

In the unshrinking station where he fought.

But like a man, he died."

The school already has begun using the memorial site for classes. But students will be allowed to gather there for other purposes as well.

"It is the hope of Frank, Michael and me that this memorial will be a place for students who never knew Eric to enjoy a quiet time to study, to meditate or even socialize," Debra Layer said during the service.

Of course, that's the tranquil part of Layer's legacy. Angel told a story Saturday about the passionate part of his spirit that he said still surrounds the school.

On Angel's office wall is a photo of a screaming Layer, his face painted red and blue with an 'H' over his face, that was taken during a pep rally. At the time, Layer was undergoing chemotherapy treatments and had lost his hair.

"I had a family from outside the Columbia area who was looking at the school and came to my office," Angel said. "They looked at that photo and said, 'Wow, that certainly is a spirited student.' They had no idea how spirited."

Before, during and after Saturday's service, Layer's friends relived memories of their special times at Hammond.

Seven of them sang during the chapel service and following the blessing at the memorial site. The group, known as the "Seven @ Seven" because they practiced in the morning before classes, sang a capella and included "Amazing Grace" among their set.

Debra Layer read Linda Ellis' "The Dash Poem," reminding everyone that it's not our birth year and death year that people most remember, but what we do in between.

"Eric would want us today to be happy," she said, "recalling his passions - his friends, his acting, his soccer and his academic challenges at school."