As a youngster, David Lee Stepan was taught that boys don't cry.

"I was bullied and picked on a lot, and I thought of suicide, but I had this never-give-up attitude," he recalled. It was an attitude he picked up from his dad.

Then, however, Stepan's father, the man he most admired, committed suicide. "This was the guy who was my rock," he said.

The tears flowed then and now, 17 years later, they still come easily when Stepan thinks of his father.

But Stepan has learned that he's not alone, especially at events like Saturday's Out of the Darkness walk for suicide prevention. Stepan, 34, of Rochester, was the main speaker in a brief program prior to the start of the walk at Bear Creek Park.

"I've been meaning to get more involved and helping people be more open to how they're really feeling," he said during an interview. "When we do, we find others feel the same way."

Stepan remembers how he felt in the aftermath of his father's suicide. Stepan was a senior in high school at the time. "When he did that, I saw how people were affected by that," he said. "I knew I would never do that."

Still, like others who have lost a parent to suicide, Stepan can't escape a haunting thought. "There's this feeling of life as an hourglass," he said. "When I get to the age he did it, is that when I'm going to lose my marbles? There's a little bit of fear that, since he did it, is that a possibility for me?"

During his talk, Stepan read a poem he wrote shortly after his father's suicide. He also sang a song that he said came to him one night.

As he did, there were tears and hugs in the audience. Some groups of walkers wore T-shirts remembering their loved one who died by suicide. Colored beads were available to denote the loss by suicide of a parent, family member, friend or child. On a clothesline, some participants left note cards reading, "In memory of ..." and "Miss you."

Up to 500 people were expected to take part in the walk, said Cassandra Linkenmeyer, the local representative of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The walk raises nearly $20,000 for suicide prevention programs.

"Obviously, it's a fundraiser, but for a lot of these people, this is their first introduction to finding some healing," Linkenmeyer said. "They come here, and they know they're not alone. We're coming together to support one another."

In Minnesota, on average one person dies by suicide every 11 hours, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for ages 15 to 34 in Minnesota, and the third-leading cause for ages 35 to 44.

Nationwide, an average of 129 people die by suicide each day.

Stepan said each suicide sends a ripple that touches not only family members and friends, but also workplaces and communities. 

Asked what he wishes walk participants could carry with them at the end of the day, Stepan said, "Hope. Hope that the stigma and fear and shame can go away. People can be open about how they feel without having to feel guilty."

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Life Reporter

Tom covers primarily arts and entertainment for the Post Bulletin and 507 Magazine. He also often writes feature stories about local history. He is a native of Milwaukee, WI, and enjoys reading and traveling.