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Celebration of Life

Prepared by Samantha Rutt

Miracles happen. 

These words were often repeated during Brooke Ellison’s Celebration of Life on March 24.

Friends, family and loved ones came together to celebrate the remarkable life of Brooke Ellison, a woman whose resilience and determination inspired countless others. The room was filled with laughter, tears and fond memories during the three-hour celebration. 

Brooke’s journey, from a devastating childhood accident to becoming a beacon of hope and achievement, was the epitome of courage and determination. Despite being paralyzed from the neck down at the tender age of 11, Brooke refused to let her circumstances define her. Instead, she embarked on a journey that would see her break barriers and defy expectations at every turn.

The celebration, held at Stony Brook University’s student center, was a testament to the profound impact Brooke had on the lives of those around her. As attendees shared stories and memories, it became evident that Brooke’s spirit shone bright in every corner of the room.

“I personally do not have any memories of my life without my sister. She was born when I was 2 1/2 years old and she was the greatest gift that had been given to me by my parents,” Brooke’s sister, Kysten Ellison, said.

She exchanged fond memories of her sister growing up, sharing young Brooke’s aspirations to be a dancer and her love of dancing.

“Every single night, my dad would routinely sit between both of our beds and read us our favorite bedtime stories. After my dad finished his nightly reading and went to bed, Brooke and I would continue to chat,” she added. “We would talk about our future hopes and dreams and what we wanted to be when we grew up. And, ironically, my sister always wanted to be a dancer. She wanted to share her love of dancing with the entire world.”

Brooke’s brother, Reed Ellison, echoed this sentiment, recalling their deep bond and shared love for games and intellectual pursuits.

“Brooke was my best friend,” he said. “When other kids were out partying or at friends’ houses, Brooke and I stayed home and challenged each other to games of Scrabble or worked on logic problems, or crossword puzzles together. These are some of the best memories I have and I will cherish them forever.” 

Friends and family reminisced about Brooke’s vibrant personality, her love for themed parties and her infectious yet nearly silent laughter that could brighten even the darkest of days. Photos of Brooke, flashing her trademark smile, adorned the venue, serving as a poignant reminder of her enduring spirit.

Brooke’s legacy extended far beyond her personal achievements. As an advocate for stem cell research and disability rights, she paved the way for others to follow in her footsteps. Throughout her life Brooke pursued many things: She was a Harvard graduate twice over, an associate professor at Stony Brook, a researcher, a leader of various groups like the Inclusion in Innovation team in the Vertically Integrated Projects Program, a founder of SBU’s VENTure Think Tank, a selection for the World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, once a state Senate candidate and so much more. 

Her friendship with actor Christopher Reeve, himself a quadriplegic, underscored her impact on a global scale. Her sister shared her experience, watching her son, Carter, grow close to Brooke through their common love for comics and superheroes, especially Superman.

“My sister meant the world to a special little boy. This sweet little boy idolized my sister like nobody else on this planet. He liked everything that Brooke liked,” Kysten expressed about her son’s relationship with “Aunt Brookie” who was “hands down and always will be Carter’s favorite person, and we will continue to brag about her as time goes by.”

“After learning that Brooke was friends with Christopher Reeve, Carter became obsessed with watching clips from the Superman movies. As a matter of fact, Reed had recently purchased Carter a Superman costume that he put on every day when he got home from school and pretend to fly around the house,” she said.

The celebration also featured Brooke’s father, Ed Ellison, nicknamed “Steady Eddy” for his unwavering support of the relationship of Brooke and his wife, Jean.

Behind each speaker a photo stood as a backdrop. As Brooke’s father spoke, a photo of him smiling wide was projected with him playing with his daughter’s braided hair as she laughed with vigor. 

“People often use the phrase 24/7 to describe efforts being made on something or time spent with someone. In most cases, it’s really hyperbole — but with Brooke, Jean and her relationship and dedication to Brooke — 24/7 was not an exaggeration,” he said. “They were inseparable. Almost one person. Jean would describe it as ‘Brooke is the brains, I’m the brawn.’”

The proud father described what dedication looked like for the Ellison family, more specifically, for his wife.

“Jean would get up at 3:45 every morning and go to work getting Brooke ready for the day. And when I tell you, she never complained, you need to know that to be the truth. I know, I was there,” he said.

“In 33 1/2 years [since the accident], Jean never took a sick day, never went on vacation, never put herself before Brooke. A dedication and love that was so beautiful to be a part of. And Brooke’s admiration and gratitude to her mother was palpable,” her father added.

Among all the heartfelt tributes, a short film made by a friend of Brooke’s father, Todd Leatherman, showcased Brooke’s remarkable journey. The film shared testimonials from Brooke herself, clips from her experiences speaking at various events and coveted moments from her life.

As the celebration drew to a close, there was a sense of both loss and gratitude in the air. In true Brooke fashion, the guests were asked to sing themselves out to “That’s What Friends Are For,” as a tribute to her love of sharing life with others. 

Event emcee and longtime friend, Justin Krebs, shared an excerpt from Brooke’s autobiography, “Look Both Ways.” “My life story is a love story. My life is a life of love and it is this love that makes me who I am,” Krebs read. As Brooke goes on to write, she describes her loves, “her love of laughter, her love of learning, her love of being an inspiration to others for loving her friends, and her love of family.” She also writes that “one of the biggest gifts I have been given is my ability to share my life with people.” 

Brooke Ellison passed away on Feb. 4, in the care of Stony Brook University Hospital. While Brooke may no longer be with us in body, her legacy of courage, determination and boundless optimism will forever remain etched in the hearts of all who had the privilege of knowing her.

In honor of Brooke’s impact and legacy, Stony Brook University has created a scholarship, the Brooke Ellison Legacy Scholarship. To contribute, send a gift to the Stony Brook Foundation at www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/foundation/types.