Fiery crash takes life of ‘fun-loving, outgoing’ 24-year-old Lutie grad, Caleb Christeson
Lutie High School teacher Lois Honeycutt remembers former student Caleb Christeson as someone who was “very athletic and had lots of friends. He was always very helpful. Some seniors might pick on the underclassmen sometimes, but Caleb wasn’t like that.”
Still, said Honeycutt, remembering the 24-year-old Lutie graduate who died Saturday in a car crash near Thornfield, the fun-loving Caleb wasn’t above giving his teacher a good-natured hard time occasionally. “Being a twin, I never knew which was which,” Honeycutt said. “He and Corey [his twin] were good kids. They didn’t give us any trouble – except for making sure I couldn’t tell which one was which.”
Caleb and his twin brother Corey spent most of their growing-up years in Thornfield, where “they spent lots of days at the Thornfield creek,” their mother, Lynda Jennings, said Monday. “And they spent a lot of time with my dad, Norman Christeson, who lives at Thornfield and is an avid hunter and fisherman. The three of them – Caleb, Corey and their younger brother Jake – were like triplets. They went hunting and fishing. They did everything together.”
After Caleb’s death Saturday, Corey sent his mom a message about his twin brother. “Every memory I have is with him,” he said.
Caleb and Corey graduated from Lutie High School in 2013, but they attended their first commencement exercises there back in 1995, when they were five months old – and their mother was graduating. “I was a senior in high school when I got pregnant,” Lynda said. “I graduated early, had the twins in January and then came back in May to do the walk. Mom and Dad brought the boys to the ceremony.”
The twins’ dad “was the same age as me, a senior in high school too. We were really scared,” she said.
Enduring tough times together
Caleb and his brothers grew up watching their mother work hard to make a better life for them. After graduating high school, Lynda went to technical school in Springfield, hoping to prepare for a medical career. “At first, I was living with my dad down here and driving to Springfield probably four nights a week for night classes,” she said. “I babysat for a lady in Thornfield. She had twins also, and another little girl. I did a lot of babysitting for her, and then I would go to school,” she said.
Later, she moved to Springfield, where friends helped watch the boys while she attended classes. “It was hard,” she said. “I remember one time all we had in the cabinet was some canned peas and some noodles.”
She and her boys “made it through some tough times together,” she said, but surely her sons were inspired by the hard work they saw their mother do. “One thing I can say now. They all carry full-time jobs, and they are very hard workers,” she said.
After completing her technical schooling but unable to find a job in the medical field, Lynda took a job as a receptionist in Springfield at A.G. Edwards, an investment company. She bought a house in Ozark and was working full-time while also raising the boys as a single mother. Then, while continuing to work, she went back to school to become a nurse.
Finally achieving her goal of working in medicine, she worked for several years as assistant director of nursing at the Gainesville Health Care Center. Next, she was resident services director at Elmcroft, a senior living facility in Mountain Home, Arkansas. Now she’s back at GHCC, working part-time “so I could spend time with our daughter Aliya during her last year at home before leaving for college,” Lynda said.
She and her husband Conley Jennings, who works for the U.S. Department of Energy, live in Protem and have a big, blended family that, in addition to Caleb, Corey and Jake, also includes Conley’s son Gavin Jennings and daughter Cassie, who’s married to Jarrett Wallace. Their daughter Aliya is their only child still living at home.
A sweet, tenderhearted mama’s boy
But the family seems to include so many more, Lynda said, because the brothers “have a group of friends, and it’s big. They know so many people. I don’t even know how they know so many. It’s amazing to me, but I think it’s because they are so loving and outgoing. And they like to have fun. There’s never a boring moment for them because they could think of so many things to do.”
For example, Caleb thought up this idea a couple of weeks ago: “It was right before Father’s Day, and I guess everyone else was off doing something” Lynda said. “Caleb came over and wanted to fry us up some fish. He brought his cooker, he brought his fish, he brought cole slaw and hushpuppies, fried taters. That’s what he wanted to do, cook a fish dinner for us. It was wonderful. And then he burned two holes in our yard. He threw the hot grease on the grass. We just hated that. Me and my husband are both Type A, and Caleb was not. He didn’t see the harm in it.”
Caleb was “a mama’s boy,” she said. “Sometimes the other boys would go off and do other things, but Caleb wanted to stay home with his mama. He was sweet and tenderhearted.”
She remembers the last time she saw him. He sat beside her on the porch swing, put his arm around her and asked, “How you doin’, Mama?”
A living nightmare
She had gone into town Saturday morning to buy groceries and had stopped at the post office when she got the call from her husband, who was away, working on an out-of-state job. “He told me the news. He said, ‘They don’t know for sure it’s him yet. They found golf clubs in the back of the truck, and they think the golf clubs are his.”
In the early hours Saturday, Caleb was apparently driving back from his brother Jake’s house, where they had celebrated Jake’s birthday. The Missouri State Highway Patrol report says crash, at 4:05 a.m., occurred when the 2007 Nissan Titan Caleb was driving on Highway 95 north of Theodosia ran off the road, struck a tree and caught fire. The fire was so severe, authorities had to get the VIN off the truck’s engine block and trace it to the vehicle’s title to begin their work to identify the driver. Ozark County Coroner Shane Ledbetter pronounced Caleb dead at the scene.
The fiery crash was a heart-rending tragedy that took her son’s life. And even more, for Lynda, it was literally a living nightmare.
“A couple of years ago, I had a really vivid dream. It was bad,” she said. “I dreamed that Caleb was burned really, really bad. The dream was so vivid, and he was burned so badly. I told Caleb about it. In fact, we talked about it several times, and he always said, ‘If it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go.’”
Golf, disc golf and fried pickles
The golf clubs in the back of the truck were a fitting identifier for Caleb. He loved to play golf, and he especially loved disc golf, which involves throwing a frisbee-like disc into a tall “basket” mounted on a pole. In 2017, Lost Woods Golf Course in Theodosia added a 10-hole disc golf course that Caleb and his brothers and friends enjoyed – as well as the nine-hole traditional golf course.
Lutie school board member and Lost Woods employee Carl Kruger saw the group there fairly often. Like so many others, he remembers Caleb’s fun-loving side. “He and his brother were very nice, very respectful,” Kruger said. “He played a lot of golf and disc golf, and they would come in with friends and watch Chiefs and Cardinals games. They like to razzle me because I’m not from here. I would give it right back to them. Caleb had a great sense of humor, and he always like the fried pickles there. It’s such a sad thing.”
Caleb enjoyed being outside. If he wasn’t playing golf or disc golf, he might be fishing on Bull Shoals Lake with Matt Loveall, who worked with him at Dustin’s Body Shop in Theodosia.
To shop owners Dustin and Amanda Wallace, Caleb wasn’t just an employee. During their high school days, “Caleb and Corey lived with us some of the time. They were friends with my kids, and they became like kids of my own. We had an open-door policy with them,” Dustin said, who described Caleb as “outgoing and fun-loving.”
Caleb started working for Dustin about five years ago after trying college in Springfield but deciding it wasn’t for him. “He started by washing cars,” Dustin said. “And he finally got to where he could take them apart and put them back together. And he was very good at painting. I haven’t had to do any painting for a year. Caleb found something he really enjoyed, and he found a lot of pride in it. He would ask me questions about every single detail about a repair, and he would listen and learn.”
But there was also that famous Caleb playful side, which included joking and kidding with his co-workers.
“Me and him and the other two guys (Matt Loveall and Chance Strong), we were pretty well at one another all day long, aggravating each other about something or other,” Dustin said. “If we had something on you, none of us were gonna let it go. You were gonna hear about it all day. And Caleb worked hard, but when five o’clock came around, it was hard to get him to stay here. He enjoyed what he did, but he wasn’t consumed with it. He had a love of doing his own thing in his free time, like any 24-year-old kid.”
Laughter and tears
Given Caleb’s love of laughter, there’s sure to be some of that mingled with the tears Wednesday morning when friends and family gather in the Lutie School gymnasium for his memorial service. Stan Collins, long-time family friend and the pastor who, in 1997, presided over Caleb and Corey’s dedication at the House of Prayer in Thornfield, will officiate at Caleb’s funeral.
Collins said Monday he didn’t know yet exactly what he would say at the service, but it would be “whatever the Lord lays on my heart. I want to say the right things to help all of us. I hope to touch the hearts of the people who are there,” he said. “But it will be tough on all of us, it sure will.”