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WVU student's death in Australia stuns family and friends

Authorities say Emily Gray Spickler, 19, of Shepherdstown, W.Va., died of natural causes while studying abroad

August 17, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |
  • Emily Gray Spickler, who died Monday in Australia, worked as an intern at Los Angeles Magazine before traveling to Australia for a student exchange program.
Chris Schmitt Photography

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Emily Gray Spickler was determined to make her own way in the world.

And the 19-year-old aspiring fashion journalist from Shepherdstown, W.Va., was doing just that before her life came to an unexpected end this week while studying abroad in Australia.

"Gone too soon," Spickler's mother, Jill Spickler, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Three days before what would have been her 20th birthday, the 2009 Jefferson High School graduate was found dead Monday in her dormitory residence at the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba, Australia.

Authorities said Wednesday that an autopsy determined that Spickler died from natural causes.

Spickler, a West Virginia University journalism major, completed an unpaid eight-week internship at Los Angeles Magazine before traveling to Australia last month for what was to be a one-year student exchange, according to her mother and WVU.

Spickler's death has "shocked and saddened" the staff at Los Angeles Magazine, said Online Content Manager Shayna Rose Arnold, Spickler's supervisor.

Arnold said Spickler was smart, hardworking, responsible and eager to get out and explore Los Angeles while working as an intern for the online edition of the monthly culture and lifestyle magazine.

Having her at Los Angeles Magazine was "really a pleasure," Arnold said.  

Aside from her love of writing, Emily loved to dance, travel and meet new people, according to her mother. She also was a model and worked through Nova Agency based in Baltimore and was working through another agency in Australia when she died.

"She had a smile that lit up the room," Spickler said of her oldest daughter, who was a junior at WVU.

Nova agency owner Syreeta Smith said Emily was "a classic beauty" at 5 feet, 9 1/2 inches tall with porcelain skin and "piercing" blue eyes.

"This is a great loss to us," Smith said in a telephone interview. "Emily had such a bright future ... we definitely miss her."

Smith said Spickler walked the runway last year for DC Fashion Week where she donned clothing by several designers at the show.

Spickler's mother admitted she had "no idea" where Emily's interest in fashion journalism or modeling originated, but said her daughter excelled in school nonetheless.

She graduated magna cum laude from Jefferson High School and was awarded scholarships toward college, according to her mother. Spickler enrolled in WVU where she continued to earn high marks, making the dean's list in the fall of 2009 and spring of 2011. She was a member of two academic honor societies, Alpha Lambda Delta and National Society of Collegiate Scholars, according to WVU and her family.

Spickler was a writer for The Daily Athenaeum, the WVU student-run newspaper and a member of Alpha Omicron Pi sorority, according to WVU officials.

"The WVU community is shocked and deeply saddened to learn of Emily's passing," Michael Lastinger, associate provost for International Academic Affairs said in a statement released Tuesday by WVU.

"Our hearts and prayers go out to the Spickler family and Emily's many friends and sorority sisters, many of whom have returned to campus to prepare for the fall semester."

'Energy and grace'

A community Facebook page, "R.I.P Emily Spickler," set up by friends was liked by more than 1,900 people by 3:45 p.m.  

A candlelight vigil will be held from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Thursday at Rumsey Monument Park in Shepherdstown, Town Recorder Lori Robertson announced on the town's website.

While not her primary interest, Spickler enjoyed dance, according to her mother, who said she had taken lessons at Charles Town Dance Studio and Allegro School of Dance for several years.

"We remain incredibly proud of her as a person and her achievements and accomplishments," Spickler said.

Spickler said she and her daughter were "good friends" who enjoyed new adventures and traveling.

When asked, Spickler said her daughter would want to be remembered for "her spirit and her love."  Childhood friend Olivia Lloyd said Emily was one of her greatest confidantes.

"Strong doesn't even begin to describe her," Lloyd said in an email when contacted Wednesday. "When Emily wanted something, she went for it, beyond anyone's expectations. She was full of energy and grace, and behind every decision was a strong ideology, a belief in whatever it was that could not be shaken."

Lloyd said Emily was compassionate and her friendship was strong and unshakable.

 "It was impossible not to smile around Emily," Lloyd said.

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