Buffalo Grove student killed in crash had 'infectious' love of journalism
Brett Lerner's bosses told him a cautionary tale.
To make it in the competitive industry, he'd need to be versatile, aggressive, a standout. All of that didn't faze the 21-year-old; it only made him hungry for a career in sports journalism.
"He was tremendously enthusiastic about our industry and sports in general. His enthusiasm was just infectious," said Andy Miller, news director at WCIA Channel 3 in Champaign, where Lerner was promoted from a summer intern to a freelance videographer this fall. "You could tell he really loved it. He asked great questions. He was consistently asking feedback from our staff of ways he could improve."
Lerner, a University of Illinois student from Buffalo Grove, was on his way to cover a high school football game for the 10 p.m. newscast when he was killed Friday night in a two-vehicle crash north of the town of Fisher, according to police and the station. He was traveling on north Route 47 in a 2012 Ford Focus that entered the southbound lane for "an unknown reason," Illinois State Police said.
At that same moment, two people from Carol Stream were traveling south on Route 47 in a 2013 Ford Fusion. Authorities said the second car couldn't avoid Lerner's vehicle, and they collided in the southbound lane. Lerner died at the scene about 7:30 p.m., the Champaign County coroner said.
The 73-year-old driver of the Ford Fusion, Michael Halcomb, and his 72-year-old passenger, Bonnie Halcomb, were taken to a hospital, police said. Both were wearing seat belts at the time of the crash.
A moment of silence was held before the Illini homecoming game Saturday in honor of Lerner, a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. His picture was displayed on the video board, and the professionals offered condolences to the student journalists in the press box.
"It's just so sad to see his life cut short," said Nancy Benson, his audio journalism professor.
Lerner had built an impressive resume, making his mark both behind and in front of the camera. His bylines ran in the Daily Illini student newspaper, and he was a co-host on a roundtable sports talk show Monday nights on the student radio station WPGU 107.1. The Big Ten Network Student U announcer also wrote and shot video at WCIA.
"He was getting every bit of experience he could find," Benson said.
And yet, the busy schedule didn't "dilute his abilities," said Peter Bailey-Wells, the sports editor at the Daily Illini.
"He was someone who had talent coming out of his ears and really had aspirations in a bunch of different directions," the fellow junior said.
And Lerner, a Stevenson High School alumnus, didn't shrink from a friendly debate. Bailey-Wells is a Red Sox and Patriots fan. Lerner's teams? Yankees and Jets.
"The two of us would go back and forth," he said.
Students in the tight-knit journalism program could often find Lerner with a smile on his face, relaxed but professional before going on the air on the "Illini Drive" show.
"He was funny in a smart way and a clever way," Bailey-Wells said.
On Saturday night, WCIA devoted a segment to what would have been a promising career. About halfway through, the broadcaster had to pause, gathering his emotions.
"Our staff is grieving, especially our sports department," Miller said.