On Nov. 25, Julie Mayo of Aberdeen, S.D., endured a mother's greatest nightmare. She got a call telling her that her husband, Dr. Chester Mayo, and her 17-year-old son, Chester Jr., were dead.

A small plane piloted by her husband had crashed at the Faribault, Minn., airport, as he was returning their son to Shattuck-St. Mary's School after Thanksgiving break. Two of Chester's friends, his roommate Jay Wang and Corey Lyn Creger, also had died.

Yet a few days later this same mother stood on a stage at the Faribault school's crowded memorial service with a smile on her face. She said something that seemed inexplicable: "Shattuck-St. Mary's saved Chester's life."

Her son had been considered a misfit, a "nobody," at his former high school, Mayo said. At Shattuck, in little over year, he had become a star.

A visit to Shattuck and conversations with Chester's classmates and teachers helped to explain Julie Mayo's remarkable statement.

Shattuck-St. Mary's is Minnesota's oldest college-prep boarding/day school, founded in 1858. Though many Minnesotans may not have heard of the school, it's known around the world. Its 417 students in grades 6 to 12 hail from 34 states and 22 countries.

Most students come for the school's intense, high-quality extracurricular programs and rigorous academics. But some, such as Chester, are in desperate need of a fresh start.

A boarding school might seem an unlikely place to find yourself -- far from parents and all that home means. But once at Shattuck, Chester didn't remain alone for long. Shattuck students, from markedly different cultures and backgrounds, form a tight-knit community as they study, play and live together 24 hours a day.

"We look out for each other, bond as family," said Henry Carlson, a friend of Chester's. Teachers play a central role in this process, forming deep friendships and mentor relationships with students. Many teachers live on the 250-acre campus.

"At a boarding school, you don't get to specialize in being a classroom teacher," said Matt Ruby, director of studies. "When students are sick, we're by their bedside all night. With over 400 students, there's always an adolescent who needs someone to talk to."

When Chester arrived at Shattuck, students and teachers alike sensed submerged talents in the withdrawn youth who walked the halls dressed in black.

On his second day on campus, Carlson knocked on his closed door and recognized immediately that he needed both friends and focus. Together with theater program director Michael Todaro, he encouraged Chester to give drama a shot.

"Within a week," said Carlson, "he was psyched."

Not long after that, Chester nailed a lead role in the school's fall production, "Of Mice and Men."

In the play based on John Steinbeck's classic novel, Chester poignantly played Lennie, a vulnerable adult befriended by a street-smart dreamer, and he brought an extraordinary "presence and strength" to the part, according to Todaro. "He was an exceptionally natural actor -- one of those rare artists who is self-aware but not self-obsessed."

"He reminded me of Marlon Brando," said Carlson, himself an actor, "rebellious yet humble about his great gifts."

The legendary Brando attended Shattuck in the 1940s.

Three weeks before he died, Chester was inducted into Shattuck's Dramatic Association after giving "the performance of a lifetime" as Count Dracula in this year's fall play.

The ultimate test of a unique community like Shattuck's is an encounter with death.

We all shiver when, usually in youth, we see that first bolt of lightning warning us of our mortality -- perhaps a classmate's death in a car accident. At a boarding school, this harsh reminder comes without parents or the emotional support that family offers.

Shattuck met this challenge with grace and strength. The staff guided students through their sorrow, to "show them that we can grieve and be productive at the same time," according to Ruby.

Last week's memorial service included reflections from students, and film and musical tributes created by teachers.

Watching the service, it was easier to understand the sentiment that a life can be "saved" even when it ends too soon.

Katherine Kersten • kkersten@startribune.com Join the conversation at my blog, Think Again, which can be found at www.startribune.com/thinkagain.