Shelby Sudbrink: The call no parent can imagine and every parent fears

With a teenage driver on the brink of licensehood, I followed the recent death of Shelby Sudbrink with a newfound sense of urgency and trepidation.

Sudbrink, a happy-go-lucky 17-year-old from Atascadero with a luminous smile, was killed in a car crash on Jan. 6.

She was on her way to pick up a friend for a day at the beach on a Friday morning near the end of winter break. It’s not clear what happened, but she lost control of her Toyota 4Runner on a curvy stretch of Templeton Road and crashed into a tree.

I can’t imagine what followed, how her family was notified or what they’ve had to go through over the past week.

It is truly a parent’s worst nightmare.

But, somehow, the Sudbrinks are moving through it with resolve and dignity, while keeping the focus on all their happy memories of Shelby.

On Monday, they were the picture of grace, sitting down with a Tribune reporter and photographer to share stories.

The best one was from Colby, Shelby’s 12-year-old brother, who recalled how his devious sister conned him onto a scary ride at the Mid-State Fair by saying it didn’t go that fast.

When it turned out her evaluation of the attraction didn’t exactly jibe with his own, he protested to her afterward.

Her response: “I lied.”

The punchline sent chuckles and smiles around the other family members in the room.

The next day, the Templeton High School basketball team played its first game without its co-captain. The team welcomed 7-year-old Kiley onto the court in her sister’s place during pre-game introductions, and then tipped off with only four players, leaving a spot vacant for Shelby — both classy moves on the team’s part.

At halftime, Shelby’s parents, Michael and Emily Sudbrink, took the microphone and addressed the crowd, thanking the community for its love and support.

Honestly, I don’t know how they’re keeping it together, and maybe the shock and pain are still sinking in, easing one moment, back cruelly and severely the next.

I imagine each time they hear footsteps coming down the hall or a door opens, they half expect it to be Shelby.

I give them a lot of credit, and on behalf of all of us who only met their daughter through this most heartbreaking of circumstances, I want to say thank you to the Sudbrinks for sharing her story so openly.

As tragic and rare a death like this is, it serves as a reminder about the risks our kids face every day, perhaps the greatest of which is anything involving a vehicle.

I keep telling our two that the most dangerous thing they’ll likely do in their lives is get behind the wheel of a car. And that the riskiest of that driving will occur when they’re young, before they hone their skills, before they learn how vehicles respond to different road conditions, before they understand that even with great care and no recklessness, moving at 65 mph itself puts them in peril.

Little Miss 11th-Grader has been taking her time with her driver’s education, which is perfectly fine with me.

One day last month, I made her drive in the rain over the Cuesta Grade to San Luis Obispo, so she could experience those conditions. Then I made her drive around town in busy holiday traffic. Then I made her park in the packed Marigold Shopping Center lot.

For the most part, she did fine. What does she need to work at? Guiding a car to a stop between two stationary white lines.

I hope that’s not on the driving test, because you’d think she was steering a boat on the high seas. First we were too close to one side and crooked. Then we were too close to the other side ... and still crooked.

I had to take over. But those days are dwindling.

All of her friends have their licenses. She wants to take her test soon so she can drive to her choir rehearsals.

But before that happens, I may take her over to Templeton Road, to see that curve and the tree, decorated with flowers, a blue ribbon and photos.

Shelby may be gone, but she won’t be forgotten.

Joe Tarica: 805-781-7911, @joetarica

Memorial and scholarship

A memorial service for Shelby Sudbrink is planned for 1 p.m. Sunday at Oyster Ridge Barn and Event Space in Santa Margarita. Immediately following the service, the family will celebrate Shelby with food, music and stories of her life.

A scholarship has been created in Shelby’s name, to be awarded to a selected Templeton High School senior each year. Donations can be made at the Templeton High School main office with a debit card or by mailing a check to Templeton High School, attn: Sheila DeLisle, 1200 S. Main St., Templeton, CA 93465, with “Shelby Sudbrink” written in the memo.

Anyone with questions about donating to the scholarship fund may call 805-434-5865. Those who wish to contribute in any other way can contact Adam Kovach at 310-938-5625.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune