trace_graphic

Trace

Twenty-one years ago we chose Trace’s name because of its Gaelic and English meanings: courageous, the battler, brave, warlike, and fierce.
—Amy Bulger

To his high-school football coach, Trace Bulger ’19 is the player more concerned about his team’s character than its wins.

To his high-school art teacher, he’s the student she watched fall in love with painting.

To his college track-and-field coach, he’s the “big guy” with a lot of rhythm.

To his fraternity, he’s the brother who loved to talk … a lot.

To his college art professor, he’s the student who constantly makes him think, “I need to be a better person.”

He’s also fighting a degenerative neurological disease that has left the former defensive lineman, shot-putter, artist, and wordsmith homebound and confined to a wheelchair. Countless medical specialists still don’t know why.

He eats through a feeding tube. He can barely talk or use his hands.

But that’s not who he is.

 

Guerin Catholic High School Head Football Coach Tom Dilley recalls the first time he met Trace.

“When I was hired, my first priority was to meet with every player who was going to be a senior. Trace came in with a list of questions. Not ‘What kind of offense or defense are you going to run?’ They were about spiritual development; about character development; about leadership.

“I said to myself, ‘Man, I’d better be on my toes!’”

Last fall, the staff at Guerin Catholic wanted to pray for Trace at a football game. His family didn’t have an easy way to get his motorized wheelchair to the stadium, but the school was determined.

So on September 22, Trace was pushed to the end zone with his family as Guerin Catholic’s and Bishop Chatard’s teams ran onto the field.

Both teams lined up on their own 25-yard lines, helmets in hand, heads bowed, and the stadium fell silent as a prayer for Trace and his family echoed over the PA system.

Trace looked up at his mom … and rolled his eyes as if he were saying, “Are you serious?”

“I’m really glad he did that because that meant he knew what was going on, whether he liked it or not,” his former coach says. “We were going to do it anyway.”

 

“He always had a vision of doing a painting of his dad, and he wanted to do it in oil.”

Guerin Catholic art teacher Beth Wagoner watched Trace fall in love with art. She helped him cultivate his creative side and learn to express himself visually.

A couple years later as his motor skills began deteriorating and his speech became harder to understand, she didn’t want that expressiveness to fade. So she started art-therapy sessions with him in his home.

Beth hadn’t noticed any decline in Trace’s abilities at Guerin, but after he graduated, she had Shaelen, one of his sisters, in class.

“She worries about them a lot,” Beth says of Shaelen. “Her mom, Amy, sleeps on the couch downstairs, where they moved Trace, just in case something happens. It’s just …it’s rough.

“They’ve always said he was kind of the glue of the family.

“His dad says Trace is still praying, too. His dad will ask him how his faith life is going, and he’ll say, ‘Good.’ I’m just amazed that he’s so determined still and staying true to himself.”

 

“I think he’s the glue wherever he goes.”

Retired attorney and Wabash College Trustee Stephen Bowen ’68 met Trace during his first semester teaching, which was also Trace’s first at Wabash. The class was an upper-level seminar in theological ethics comprising juniors and seniors … and first-semester freshman Trace.

“I asked him, ‘What are you doing here?’

“He said, ‘Well, I was a little late getting all of my registration done. I saw this opening, it passed with the registrar, and here I am!’

“I said, ‘It sounds like you snuck in! Trace, this is a really hard course.’

“He said, ‘I went to a Catholic school. I can handle it.’

“And that was the first day.”

Trace did struggle with the course. At the beginning, his comments during discussions were often out of left field.

“And then one day, about a month and a half into the semester, he had an insight in class that just staggered everybody. It was right on the money.

“That night I was in the library and he came rushing up to me. And he’s a big football player! And he said, ‘Hey Mr. Bowen! I was pretty good today, wasn’t I?!’ And I said, ‘Trace, you were terrific.’ And he said, ‘I’m glad you said that because I’ve decided to stick out the course.’ I think he ended up with a B plus.”

The next January, Steve came back to campus for a trustees dinner with juniors and seniors and invited Trace.

“I had him stand up, and I said, ‘Anybody know who this guy is?’ A bunch of his upperclass Sigma Chi brothers piped up. So I said, ‘Wonder why the hell he’s here? I wondered the same thing when he showed up to my upper-level seminar.’

“I just had to embarrass him, but he loved it, just loved it.”

One of the earliest effects of Trace’s condition was extremely rapid speech.

“It became increasingly difficult for me to understand him. One night, I sat down and had coffee with him, and when he talked, he would press a finger for each word to try to slow his voice down. It was probably a week after I had that conversation with him that I got the email saying he had left campus.

“I got another email shortly before the end of that semester, and he said, ‘I’m hanging strong, and I hope to be back soon.’”

 

“When you’re with him every day, you don’t see the progression as easily. It just creeps up on you.”

Oliver Page ’19, one of Trace’s Sigma Chi pledge brothers, sits in 1832 Brew with his leg in an orthopedic boot stretched out into the aisle.

“Trace and I were the only Sigma Chis who showed up for the Homecoming bed races our freshman year, and we were about to go against seven Betas. Trace was sitting in the grocery cart, I was pushing him, and he was like, ‘Go! Go!’

“People were throwing stuff at us, and Trace had pillows to block with. He was horrible at blocking, and I kept getting nailed. When we finished, he was like, ‘I didn’t get hit at all!’ I said, ‘That’s because you were supposed to be defending me!’”

Another pledge brother, David Daugherty ’19, helped organize a time to honor Trace during the coin toss of the Wabash vs. Wittenberg football game last fall.

“If this happened to me, I have no doubt Trace would be doing for me what I’m doing, except times 10,” David says.

Trace was wheeled out to the middle of the field for the coin toss, surrounded by his family and the Wabash captains, his former teammates.

“I was tearing up, and people thought I was sad I couldn’t play in the Wittenberg game because of my injury,” Oliver says. “I was like, ‘No! This has nothing to do with that.’

“Whenever something bad happens, Trace has it 10 times worse. And they don’t even know why this has happened. It feels like a lottery sometimes.

“Why Trace, of all people?”

 

“What do you say to that family? So I just walked up to him and I said, ‘Mr. Bulger, welcome back to Wabash.’”

There are tears as Olmy Olmstead ’04 remembers the day Trace came back for the coin toss. As an assistant football coach and a Sigma Chi brother himself, Olmy says he is proud of the way the guys are rallying around Trace.

“When you put both Wabash College and Sigma Chi together, you have an unstoppable force of help and support behind you. I hope that’s what Trace feels.”

The spring of Trace’s freshman year, Olmy was asked to coach the shotput throwers for track and field.

“During the football season, we really didn’t see any decrease in his abilities, and I was around him every day. Then we got into track and field and I really saw a decline in his performance. My first thought was, ‘How am I screwing this kid up so bad?’”

Also watching Trace struggle was the volunteer coach brought in to help mentor both Olmy and the throwers: Big Ten Champion shotput thrower from Purdue University—and Trace’s dad—Dan Bulger.

“I can’t imagine how his dad must feel,” says Olmy, a new dad himself.

 

“One time, Trace was trying to tell me a story. He was like, ‘Coach, this is hilarious.” Track and Field Coach Clyde Morgan laughs. “He was so excited that I couldn’t keep up with how fast he was talking. So I said, ‘OK, big guy, just text it to me.’ He’s texting me, I’m texting back, and we’re just laughing.

“After he left my office that day, he swung back in, gave me a big ol’ hug, and said, ‘I love you, man.’ That’s Trace.

“During his sophomore year we were in fall training and it was getting rough for him. He fell a couple of times doing duck walks with a PVC pipe. We were on the side of the track, and the football team had some music going, and Trace bounces up and just starts dancing! Big man has some rhythm!”

For almost a year after Trace left campus, Clyde stayed in touch through text messages.

“In August [2017] I texted him. ‘Hey big guy. Just checking on you. Love you.’ And nothing back. Usually I would get something back, even if it was just a broken text. Later, his mom texted me back and told me he couldn’t even pick up a phone.

“If I had a poster child for our ‘MOWNBU’ motto (Men of Wabash, Nothing Breaks Us), Trace would absolutely be standing there. I don’t know many grown adults who would be fighting like he is.”

 

“I’ve had students face life-threatening situations, but there’s something so specific about Trace because of who he is. This bizarre goodness, and you’re just like, ‘Shit. I need to be a better person.’”

BKT Assistant Professor of Art Matt Weedman first met Trace when Matt was walking around the fraternities during Homecoming as the freshmen were building floats. Trace walked right up and introduced himself.

“He is a beacon of positive energy like I have never witnessed in a student. And I said that on Day One.”

Trace was a student in Matt’s “Ghost in the Machine” class, and one of the projects centered around inventions. Trace took a glove and put several different paint brushes on it.

“Poorly made would be an understatement.” Matt laughs.

“So he takes this glove, a canvas, and an easel and paints the Chapel in sort of a Bob Ross style. He’s giving a painting lesson with this horrible glove, and he’s so straight-faced about it. And because he has problems with his speech, people are really nice to him when they come up and see what he’s doing, which he thinks is just hilarious because he was like, ‘This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen!’

“He has a great sense of humor—ironic, funny, and yet sincere. I don’t think Trace could do anything without being sincere too. He was painting the Chapel, which was important to him, but, on the other hand, you’re watching him comment on how people treat people with disabilities.”

One day, Trace came into Matt’s office and asked him to read some of his poetry. Matt admits he knows nothing about poetry, but he could tell Trace was letting his guard down in that moment and knew he needed to let him be vulnerable.

“This person who knows everybody in the world is coming to me to share and have this connection with.

“I’m glad that Trace made me one of his special people. But I am the benefactor of that, much more than he could ever be.”

 


“Trace wants to talk to people,
wants to express his love and his kindness. Imagine being that type of person and have others not be able to understand what you’re saying.”

Joe Walters, another of Trace’s Sigma Chi brothers, is head of the Trace Bulger Committee. After Trace left campus, some of the people he had influenced decided to pick up where Trace left off.

“Trace wanted to do so much on campus but was stripped of it, and the best thing we could do is create some sort of lasting impact. Not in his honor or in his name but because this is what Trace would have done, and what Wabash lost. As much as Trace and his family may miss Wabash, Wabash misses him more.”

When the committee first came together, they knew the one thing they definitely had to continue was Trace’s Munch.

Trace started Trace’s Munch in his fraternity kitchen. On Sunday afternoons, he would invite anyone and everyone over and cook for them.

It started slowly at first, but, eventually, guests of Trace’s Munch had to pay a cover charge to help him pay for all of the food.

And on March 25, members of the entire Wabash community gathered in Knowling Fieldhouse for the first Trace’s Munch since he left campus.

“I want to remind the Bulgers that we’re always going to be there for Trace,” says Joe. “This is home for him, and he’s family to us.”

Joe and Trace left campus at about the same time. Joe was getting ready to study abroad for a semester and Trace was leaving to get the answers he needed from doctor.

“Trace is a fighter. I hoped he would be better when I got back. So the hardest thing in the world was seeing him at the Wittenberg football game.

“It was an emotional time for him because he was so happy but also in pain. His dad lifted Trace’s head up for me to say hi—let us make eye contact—and you could tell he would give anything to talk, to be able to give a hug. He couldn’t do that, but you see it in his eyes.”

 

“It just means the world to us the way friends, administrators, and staff at Wabash have reached out to Trace and our family,” Amy Bulger says. “It can help a bad day seem a little brighter.

“I show him pictures of his friends, read notecards his Sigma Chi brothers wrote to him, and try to recall the stories that I know.

“But the best thing for Trace is the occasional visit from brothers. He misses them. Hearing old stories and inside jokes from when he was there brings a glimmer to his eyes.

“The notecards Sigma Chi put together are overwhelming. Their theme was Trace is the kindest, most genuinely uplifting person to others they’d ever met.

“That’s something I’ve known about him since he was very young, but it’s so nice to see the effect he had everywhere he went.”