The families of recent Oral Roberts University graduates Stephen Luth and Luke Sheets planned to gather Friday in Muscatine, Iowa, and Saturday in Ephraim, Wisc., to lay to rest their sons and brothers, who died a week earlier in a plane crash in rural Kansas.
But a different kind of family honored the memories of the two best friends Thursday night in a strip shopping center dance hall in Tulsa.
The Swing Tulsa Style lessons and dances had become an off-campus “home away from home” for roommates Luth and Sheets. Members of the organization gathered several dozen strong on Thursday with a potluck spread, video tributes, Christian message and, of course, a dance, to celebrate the shortened lives of two of their own.
Among the musical selections was MercyMe’s classic anthem about heaven, “I Can Only Imagine.” The songwriter asks what entering into God’s presence will be like, querying aloud “will I dance for you Jesus or in awe of you be still?”
The Swing Tulsa Style Dance Club offered an answer to that question Thursday night: Yes, we shall surely dance.
Sheets became involved with the club about three years ago, having been introduced to it through Luth’s older brother Josh. It was Sheets who then pulled Stephen onto the dance floor to learn how to gracefully glide, spin and dip a female partner in West Coast style.
The club came to symbolize the best friends’ zest for chasing after life in everything they did.
The video tributes of Luth and Sheets astounded even those in the club who thought they knew them well.
Luth, a former track athlete in high school, was a member of ORU’s cheerleading squad. He once played Elvis Presley in a theater production and loved to make people laugh.
Sheets loved achieving high rates of speed on everything from skis and snowmobiles to airplanes and motorcycles. He enjoyed firing an AK-47 at an outdoor target, doing backflips into a backyard swimming pool, scuba diving and a host of other activities, especially dancing.
J.T. Carter was Sheets’ dance instructor at the club and remembers how Sheets wanted to learn everything he could about dancing when he began taking lessons twice a week in 2009.
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“They were like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis,” Carter said about Sheets and Luth. He described Sheets as playing the lead role in the duo and Luth following with the laughter.
Luth was seen alongside Sheets in many of the video tributes from the ski slopes to the airplane cockpit and one unforgettable scene where they are rehearsing dance steps in the dorm room they shared at ORU.
Sheets and Luth hit if off from their first meeting on the third floor of Wesley Luehring Hall several years ago, where Luth served as a chaplain. Luth had three brothers, all of whom attended ORU at various times, and Sheets had a younger brother attending a Christian university in Tennessee. The pair seemed to adopt each other as their other brother and forged a friendship that took them on countless adventures.
They eventually moved off campus and shared an apartment their senior year. Even in death, they were together on that fateful flight May 11.
Sheets, a certified pilot and flight instructor, was at the controls of the twin-engine Cessna, which had to make an emergency landing in a field in Kansas. Neither Sheets nor Luth survived the fire that engulfed the plane after it struck a line of trees. A third passenger also perished in the wreckage. Two other passengers managed to climb out, despite severe burns over much of their bodies. One of those two died 12 hours later.
The lone survivor was 2011 ORU graduate Hannah Luce, who remains hospitalized in Kansas City. All five people on the plane were en route to an Acquire the Fire Christian youth rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Luce’s father, Ron, is the founder of Acquire the Fire and Teen Mania ministries, and Luth had recently been hired by the Texas-based organization.
ORU student Beth Knier read Psalm 103 at the Swing Dance Club’s tribute Thursday night to honor her fellow ORU and dance club friends, Luth and Sheets.
“Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name,” the psalmist wrote. “Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits.”
Jonathan Tatum, a member of Swing Tulsa Style, amplified that admonition in his eulogy when he asked members of the dance club to stand if they were planning to go to a competition in Fort Worth on Memorial Day weekend. He reminded them that a few originally planned to travel there on the same plane that Sheets had borrowed from a dance club member to fly to Iowa.
Tatum said it could have been any one of them on that last flight to Texas, rather than the final one to Iowa that claimed four young men’s lives.
Other club members, including Lauren Troxell, one of Sheets’ first dance partners, testified to Sheets’ lesson of remembering to make every day count. She marveled, amid tears, at how much life Sheets and Luth had experienced in their 23 and 22 years and how they lived for the Lord.
Chris Ransdell, who was one of many club members sporting a Fedora in memory of Sheets’ fashion signature, may have best summed up the full lives they led.
Ransdell said he used to think about developing a “Bucket List,” made famous in the 2007 film starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. But after knowing Sheets, Ransdell has decided on something better: creating a “Luke’s List” of things to accomplish in life.
That would include, as Ransdell imagined aloud to the Celebration Dance crowd, “moonwalking” through the gates of heaven, as Sheets and Luth surely did – together.
*Editor's Note: This article has been corrected to reflect the correct name of the dance club. The name Tulsa Swing Dance Club has been corrected to Swing Tulsa Style.