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Daughters find strength in dad's legacy

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When Misty Kerstetter was playing basketball at Brookside High School, she remembers one game in particular when her father came to watch her play.

She understood basketball was a contact sport but she didn't shy away from the aggressive players. Even if it meant ending up on her butt, she said. Besides, she knew her father's voice would only be in her head telling her to get back up.

That's exactly what she did when in the middle of a play, she collided with another player. The opponent's knee came crashing into Misty's side.

It knocked the wind out of her and sent her to the floor with a thud. She looked to her father in the stands. His face said it all.

"I got back up because that's what you do," she said. "You suck it up and get back in the game. That's what my dad would say, 'Suck it up, buttercup.'"

Misty finished that game, but was in so much pain her parents took her to the emergency room. The doctor's diagnosis: three broken ribs and internal bleeding.

That story she recalled Sunday at her grandparents' Galaxy Drive, Elyria Township, residence - the same place Sgt. James Kerstetter called home until he left for the military - may seem odd to some because at the time the Kerstetter family was less than an hour away from leaving for the Elyria Police Department, where a memorial being held in the officer's honor was set to take place.

But a story that centers on internal bleeding and the resolve to finish the game is sort of a fitting parallel for where the Kerstetter family is at today - five years since Kerstetter's death.

"It's acceptance," said 19-year-old Shelby Kerstetter. "The past is the past, and we can't do anything but move on."

When the world was introduced in March 2010 to the three beautiful daughters of Jimmy and Tammy Kerstetter, Misty was just 17 years old - a high school senior facing the prospect of college. Middle daughter Shelby was 14, and the baby of the bunch, Bailey Kerstetter, was an 8-year-old little girl. They were barely old enough to understand what it meant to live life and were being forced to confront the painful nuances of death in the public eye only because they were the daughters of an officer killed in the line of duty - Elyria's first in 67 years.

When Misty told thousands at her father's funeral six days after the fatal shooting how honored she was to be his daughter, and when Shelby tearfully followed up by proclaiming her father was the best dad, their words of grief - although spoken so eloquently - only solidified what many in the community feared to be true. Kerstetter's death ended his life, but it also served as a tragic book end in the lives of three girls who just wished for their daddy to come home.

"To this day, anywhere I go people just want to know how his girls are doing," said Carol Kerstetter, the fallen officer's mother. "We try to let them know. They have never forgotten their dad, but they are doing OK."

They still can't answer the question "are you happy today" without crying.

Misty, now 22, is the first to break into tears.

And, then just as quickly a smile. She then admits she has found happiness. And, love. She is engaged to be married. And, in less than two months, she will graduate from the Ohio State University, where she is double majoring in forensic biology and criminology with a minor in security and intelligence.

She looks over at her grandmother, Carol Kerstetter.

"She can't get mad with all of us her. Tell us what you want to do," Kristy Sawyers, James Kerstetter's sister said to her niece.

"I think right now I'm set on going to the police academy after I graduate. That or law school, but I really want to do the police academy," Misty said. "I'm a part of Student Safety Service at school. It's kind of an escort service so students don't have to walk alone on campus at 2 o'clock in the morning, but you also work closely with campus police so I see how it feels to help people. In a way, I'm just like my dad because that's all I want to do."

Her grandmother cringes at the thought. Law school - she wants her granddaughter to go to law school. It's safer, she said.

Shelby, a second year also at OSU, is majoring in pharmaceutical science with a minor in general business. She plans to become a pharmacist - a way for her to get into medicine without all the blood and gore she admits she can't stomach.

Bailey, now 13, and a taller and more beautiful version of the little girl who pondered who would get her on the bus for school soon after her father died, is a straight A student at Sheffield Middle School. She plays both softball and volleyball, competitively and for school teams.

And, when asked what she thinks her dad would be most proud of in his daughter's today, she said their strength.

"Even though we got thrown a lot of curve balls in life, we stuck together as a family and we are moving forward," she said.

Still, all of the officer's daughters know their lives have been forever changed.

"Right now, I don't know who's going to walk me down the aisle yet," Misty said. "It's the little things. When I get an A on a test or see something funny, I still want to just pick up the phone and call my dad."

"The hardest part for me is seeing other people with their dads in public looking all happy," Shelby said. "It brings it all back for me that I will never have that again."

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.

 



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