Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Great White hope

Son of musician who died in nightclub inferno is finding his own way to bring light to the world

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CHICAGO -- The boy's name is Acey. His dad came up with it. He has his dad's curly, rock-star hair and cries when his mom insists on a trim.

But the nine-year-old from Plainfield, Ill., never got to meet his father.

Ty Longley was on stage at a Rhode Island nightclub with his heavy metal band, Great White, when a pyrotechnics show sparked a terrible fire.

One hundred people died in the 2003 inferno, including Acey's dad, who had been so excited about the impending birth of his first child that he told his girlfriend, Heidi, he was going to create a nursery on the tour bus. He also wanted to wear the baby around in a carrier.

For the last nine years, Heidi Longley has worked hard to raise the boy alone in the Chicago suburbs where she grew up. She has tried her best to balance keeping Ty's spirit alive through stories and framed tour posters while also offering Acey normal kid experiences, like taekwondo lessons and superhero matinees.

So it caught Longley a bit off guard when Acey turned to her a few months ago and suggested something seemingly impossible.

Maybe I can do something, just me and Dad.

"I was just speechless," Heidi Longley said. "What do you say to that?"

Acey's idea was to create a charity that helped children, in memory of his father. He wanted to give away iTunes gift cards so children could have music while they were in the hospital. And he wanted to give away autographed drumsticks -- like the ones he'd been collecting for years -- so children who were in pain could pound on drums or pillows to work out frustration, the way he sometimes did.

His mother used connections with Ty Longley's and her own friends in the rock world to secure early donations. Then she helped her son name the charity:

B.E.A.T.S. (Bringing Everyone A Tremendous Smile).

Perhaps, Longley thought, the charity would bring the boy closer to his father, whose love for music cost him his life. It could help her son to better understand the man she loved.

Within two months, her basement was overflowing with contributions. Eric Powers, the drummer for Great White on the night of the fire, sent six pairs of drumsticks and pictures his own son had coloured. Robert Sweet from the Christian metal group Stryper and De'Miyon Hall from Gladys Knight's band also sent items.

Zoltan Chaney, drummer for the heavy-metal band Slaughter and a family friend for years, said he would do anything he could to support the boy's efforts.

"He's turning that emptiness that he felt growing up not having a father and flipping it around to help others with a need," said Chaney, who also plays drums for Motley Crue's Vince Neil.

It's easy to forget, Longley said, that rock stars are real people.

Heidi Longley said she met Ty when she was in her early 20s and living with her parents in Schaumburg, Ill. Always a rock fan, she went to see a friend perform at Penny Road Pub in nearby Barrington Hills with a band called Samantha 7. Ty was filling in as the guitarist.

It didn't take long for their relationship to blossom. She flew to Las Vegas to watch him play with Great White and Samantha 7. He visited her in Chicago, where they went on dates to the Adler Planetarium and the Rosemont Theatre.

There were also glamorous rock parties and Versace dresses and backstage passes to friends' concerts. But they were happiest just spending time together, she said.

Longley remembers getting dressed up one night in 2002 at Ty's home in Los Angeles. They were invited to a party at a Hollywood Hills mansion. But when they pulled up to the house and saw the party in full swing with alcohol and drugs, they turned the car around, stopped for Subway sandwiches and spent the night watching CNN, she said.

"We were just like big nerds, y'know," Longley recalled with a laugh. "We were normal."

Tired of picking up Heidi at her parents' home, Ty told her to pick out a house where she could live and he could stay between road shows, she said. They decided on a four-bedroom tri-level home in Plainfield because it was affordable and close enough to her parents. Marriage was also in the plans.

The couple learned Heidi was pregnant in late 2002.

On the day before her first ultrasound, Ty called and insisted she charge the video camera. On the road playing shows every night, he also wanted her to wake him with a phone call so he could participate in the morning appointment through speakerphone.

The night before the ultrasound, Great White took the stage at The Station, a popular concert venue in West Warwick, R.I. The pyrotechnic display used to open the show ignited soundproofing foam at the rear of the stage.

Fire consumed the club in minutes.

When she couldn't reach Ty by phone, Longley took the first flight available to Rhode Island. Three days later, police, a priest and support staff from the American Red Cross knocked on her hotel room door with the news she didn't want to hear.

Great White fans did their best to help the devastated Longley cope.

Because Ty had spoken openly about becoming a father in blogs and guitar magazines, strangers sent diapers, baby clothes and money.

Too grief-stricken to be seen in public, Longley survived on bags of groceries her parents dropped off weekly, she said. Her mother accompanied her to the hospital when she delivered.

After a pregnancy that felt like years because of the stress, Longley was elated when she met her son in the delivery room.

"I saw the top of his head and brown curly hair and a button nose like Ty's," she said. "He was my angel baby."

Rolling Stone magazine published an article about his birth.

Longley has always been open with her son about his father's death, telling him she's sure Ty died trying to help others. She has taken the boy to Rhode Island to mark the first and fifth anniversaries of the fire.

In time, Acey grew to exhibit his own, free-spirited personality. He insisted on playing an instrument, but drums, not guitar like his father. He developed favourite bands -- KISS and Slaughter -- often dressing in their T-shirts.

In Grade 2, his teacher, Chris Nawrot, caught the young boy passing notes in class. She tried not to laugh when she read the message on a tiny slip of paper:

I'm starting a rock band. Do you want to join? Check Yes or No (with a space included for a parent's signature).

"He's got such a great sense of humor and just this heart of gold," Nawrot said. "The kids kind of are drawn to him because of his outgoing personality."

But along with the silly side, the boy also demonstrated a surprisingly mature sense of empathy.

Shortly before his seventh birthday, Acey announced that he didn't want any birthday presents. After hearing a sermon at church describing fundraising efforts for suffering children in Haiti, he told his mother he wanted to save a child's life. Guests at his birthday party at the Brunswick Zone in Plainfield donated more than $250, Longley said.

Earlier this month, Acey made his first drop-off of donations to children in the pediatric ward at Edward Hospital in Naperville, Ill.

Pulling a red wagon he stayed up late decorating with homemade signs and filled with Lego, drumsticks and iTunes cards, the young boy greeted two girls in the hospital playroom.

"This is from the band that my dad used to be in. This is Great White," Acey said, letting the girls choose from drumsticks, autographed photographs and other donations.

Later, in an oncology ward, Acey gave eight-year-old Hannah Grispo a pair of drumsticks and taught her a drum rhythm before she underwent her next round of treatment for leukemia.

"You look at these kids and think they're so fragile, but they're not so fragile," said Nina Sittler, a child life specialist at Edward Hospital. "It's always so inspiring to see someone younger just helping kids continue to be resilient."

After all the visits were over, mother and son pulled the empty B.E.A.T.S. wagon into the hospital parking lot, ready to be filled with more donations.

"I'm proud of you, my little man," Longley told the boy.

Acey looked up at his mom and flashed her a tremendous smile.

 

-- The Chicago Tribune

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 19, 2012 0

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