Through Scholarship, Families Share Joy and Pain

From her wheelchair, Lindsey Carmichael had a hard time doing the kinds of activities her middle-school classmates did. She was so exquisitely fragile, her doctor worried about how much weight her body could bear. Then her math teacher tossed out an idea for a sport she could try seated: archery.

Her parents, who lived at the end of a Lago Vista cul-de-sac, set up a makeshift range for her. A neighbor’s mailbox marked 70 meters. A dozen years passed. Lindsey, putting her doctor on edge, left her wheelchair for a cane along the way. She kept aiming—hundreds of thousands of arrows. McCune-Albright syndrome, the rare genetic disorder with which she was diagnosed at age 4, continued to hurt, but Lindsey had found another way to define herself.

Eighty miles south in New Braunfels, Gail Engler, BA ’69, and her husband and fellow Life Member, Chuck, were also struggling with a rare disease. Their daughter Ellen felt facial pain so severe it was like an electric shock. She was diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia, also called the “suicide disease” because so many sufferers find it too difficult to bear. Although a breeze could trigger what doctors call some of the worst pain known to humankind, Ellen pushed through UT, maintaining stellar grades even as she underwent a facial reconstruction to ease her symptoms.

Lindsey Carmichael went on to triumph, winning a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.

Ellen Engler, BA ’99, triumphed too, marrying Jonathan Burks, BBA ’00, MPA ’00, Life Member, and graduating law school. But a few years later, she fell to tragedy, dying at 30 when her pain patch malfunctioned and leaked toxic amounts of medication into her body.

In the years since, Lindsey and the Englers have come together—sharing both their joy and their pain—after Lindsey was awarded a scholarship the Englers and their son-in-law endowed in their beloved Ellen’s name.

Lindsey, now a UT senior, wasn’t chosen because of what she’d overcome. The Ellen Engler Burks Memorial Scholarship was designed for an English major like Ellen, who had loved poetry and writing. The Englers and Jonathan don’t choose the recipients. Instead, the chair of the English department selects one each year based on anonymous story submissions.

After Lindsey’s story was chosen, and the retired high school principal and the longtime math teacher met her for the first time over lunch, they quickly felt like family. Lindsey had so much in common with Ellen, including a debilitating physical limitation, a love for writing, and a ceaseless perfectionism. “It clicked to hear their stories, to hear about Ellen,” Lindsey says.

Leaving the restaurant that day, Gail—who is often brought to tears when she talks about her daughter—leaned over to her husband and said: “Ellen picked this one out.”

Lindsey is the third recipient of Ellen’s scholarship, but she was the first to accept the Englers’ invitation to spend a weekend at their New Braunfels home. They went to Gruene last summer and into the Smiling Eyes Photo Gallery, where Ellen used to work, to have black-and-white portraits taken; they had a ball dressing up in the old-time clothes. They even spent some relaxing time on the river and watched Fourth of July fireworks.

Even now, they get together every so often. Recently the Englers came to campus and saw Anna Hiss Gymnasium, where Gail has memories from her UT days and where Lindsey practiced her archery for hours while training for international competition. “We never knew an Olympian before,” Chuck says admiringly.

Later, as they sit down to chat, the empathy and affection they’ve developed for one another shine through.

“I can’t imagine,” Lindsey says when Chuck and Gail recount their daughter’s incredible challenges.

“But look at you,” Gail replies as Lindsey describes what it took to go from needing a wheelchair to winning an Olympic medal.

As they leave together to eat out downtown, the benefits of endowing a scholarship never seemed clearer, or more beautiful. A remarkable student who has balanced college coursework with Olympic training receives much-deserved support for her education. A set of grieving parents gains hope and affirmation after a terrible loss. “Nothing will ever replace Ellen,” Gail Engler says, “but we have gotten so many wonderful things out of this scholarship.”


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