Feb. 8, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
There is no way to do justice to a story about a young woman who with an otherwise pristine track record in life, academics and athletics opted one night to drive drunk only to collide head-on with another vehicle in an accident that left two people dead.
Former Georgia Tech cross country and track standout Linda Lisska (now McJunkin) is trying, however, to make something good out of the poor decision she made in Oct. 2004.
No longer able to run because of injuries suffered that morning, she nonetheless began a march while in prison to impact others while on the inside. After being released from prison last summer, she began collecting thoughts on how she might continue once out.
To that end, Lisska McJunkin spoke to several dozen Tech student-athletes Monday night about her mistake, and the consequence of choices.
It was riveting, sad and — perhaps for some — uplifting.
She spent that autumn evening with friends made while at Tech in the late 1990s.
“We went out to dinner, went to their house to continue the celebration after dinner. I was the last one to leave, and I had consumed four drinks in three hours. One of them was a pretty big margarita,” she said. “My friend said, `Are you sure you want to drive? You can sleep on the couch.’ I had to work the next day, and things to get done, so I made a really horrible decision and got behind the wheel of a car.
“That decision eventually led to the death of two young adults . . . I was in a wheelchair for three months, needing help to do the most basic things. I’m thankful that I survived the accident. I think about that every time I start to get depressed about something that has happened.”
In the three years between the accident and Lisska McJunkin’s sentencing, she created relationships with the families of the deceased, and has become close to the sister of one of the deceased.
At the sentencing, a brother of one of the young men who died sought mercy from the judge, suggesting (paraphrasing) that because his brother had been taken, Lisska McJunkin should have to serve as a sister of sorts.
The capacity to forgive can be amazing, but I don’t want to go much further than that without speaking to the families of those who passed away.
Nothing about what happened in the wee hours of that autumn morning, when Lisska McJunkin was lost trying to take back roads home only to end up driving the wrong way south on Georgia 400 and into north-bound traffic, made sense.
She was an ACC champion with undergraduate and master’s degrees from Tech, where she’d earned numerous athletic and academic honors. Her father, Andy, now admits that his daughter was passing through a phase of her life where she was somewhat typically self-centered and focused on her career, but there was no track record to predict drunken vehicular homicide.
So much was gone so fast, in a few horrible moments, after two young men from Dawsonville on their way home from a bowling outing were trapped in a burning car.
This is not an attempt to rate losses, but part of Lisska McJunkin is gone as well, and lives beyond those you might first consider were impacted in ways less difficult to fathom than those of the victims’ families, but still not easy to conceive.
Lisska McJunkin said her relationship with the friends she was with that night was, “100 percent affected.” Her mother- and father-in-law moved from Pittsburgh to Atlanta about a year after the accident, and when she went behind bars all four grandparents (her parents are divorced) pitched in to help care for the infant child of Linda and Jeff McJunkin, who had to keep working full-time.
“It’s 100 percent impossible to avoid,” said Andy Lisska, Linda’s father. “We talk about it often. Her husband and I have become very close through all this. We discuss . . . should she do what she did [Monday] night was a question. There’s been good that has come out of it, believe it or not. We’ve all evaluated our lives. She’s more caring of other people.
“She was a typical young adult, interested more in herself. She does more for other people than she ever would have. She wants to help. A lot of people in her position would have given up. She did the opposite. She was making six figures, and . . . then she was hardly able to get a job making $9 an hour.”
Decisions . . . every one of them might matter.
“I was sitting where you are 15 years ago today,” Lisska McJunkin told the student-athletes Monday night. “I had made some good decisions like you have [to get to Tech].”
Then, Lisska McJunkin made a poor choice one fateful night/morning, a decision that many of us likely have seen others make if – hopefully – without the same outcome.
Pray for the families of 20-year-old Jeff Coursey and 24-year-old Corey Blackstone. Pray, too, for Linda Lisska McJunkin and her family if you’re inclined.
There will be more of this in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story later this week. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org