ST. CLOUD, Minn. - The day their son, away to college in Fargo about a month, went missing is one Greg and Debbie Bearson won't forget.
They left him countless messages - all sent to voicemail. They contacted his friends. And they drove from their Sartell home to Fargo, his college town, in the middle of the night, neither one getting a wink of sleep.
Greg recalls pulling back the blinds of the hotel room the next morning and seeing bright sunny skies, hoping it was a good sign. About five minutes later, he watched dark clouds roll in over it.
Greg Bearson publicly opened up about the events of that day and those following at the monthly meeting of the Forum of Executive Women on April 11. The theme for the forum was "be brave."
In September 2014, Thomas Bearson, an 18-year-old at North Dakota State University and 2013 Sartell High School graduate, went missing. A few days later, he was found dead across the Red River in Moorhead, in the lot of an RV business. Police said Bearson died as the "result of homicidal violence." He had been at college for only four weeks.
Almost four years later, Greg Bearson told his story of what it felt like to lose his son and how he and his family struggled to work through their unimaginable grief.
Before they found out what had happened to Tom, Greg said they didn't stop looking - trying to ping his phone from his computer, enlisting help from his friends. Greg said he even took to searching himself, walking around and looking in drainage ditches.
"I didn't want to find him, because I knew what that would mean," he said. "But if something had happened to our Tommy, somebody needed to find him."
A few days later, the family was meeting with a police lieutenant, when the officer got a call. It was then, Greg said, he knew. Shortly afterward the police told the family they had found Tom.
"All I remember is walking over and sitting on the other end of the bed and I was shaking violently... almost in shock," Greg said. He doesn't remember much, not even if he cried. "I had never felt so empty or confused in my life. My soul was in the process of changing forever."
Learning how to live without his son was hard for Greg. "There was a time I wanted to give up," he said. "I cried all the time... I had a hard time laughing and smiling."
The room on Wednesday was full of women sniffling and wiping their tears.
Then, Greg said, his family started experiencing what he called "wondrous events." They were a combination of little instances.
Greg said every time they would be talking about Tom, the lights in their home would begin flashing. Once, while they were at the movies, a kid ran up to them wearing a No. 1 jersey, which was Tom's number while he played basketball for Sartell. They began finding pennies and dimes all over, many of which were from 1996, the year Tom was born. Greg once even found a small toy basketball in the middle of their kitchen after talking to his son about watching him play.
"For short period of time we thought, this is just coincidence," Greg said.
But after a while, they believed it was their son telling them he was OK. More often, Greg said, it was through the lights. Whether in their home or places like far away hotel rooms, they were always turning on and off when they were talking about him.
And they would respond: "Tom, we know you're here with us."
Greg said these "wondrous events" made him want to start the Tom Bearson Foundation in honor of his son.
"You ask yourself, how do you channel this grief?" Greg said one day he just knew they should do something to keep his son's spirit alive. So they decided to create a nonprofit that would support the community in ways that honor Tom's legacy.
The foundation works to provide funds "for a variety of charitable community initiatives, including several local scholarships, youth basketball programs, and personal safety programs."
With the foundation, the Bearson family channeled its loss into creating something and being there for others like they said Tom was.
"Basketball didn't define who Tom was," Greg said. "It's stuff like this - his being nice to people who we didn't even know about. That's truly what defined who Tom was. It made us so very proud."
Greg shared many stories with the room about his son: He went through gum like crazy, and loved Funyuns so much he once lost his phone in a bag of them. He knew how to play Journey's "Open Arms" on the piano, and had given up a couple early shots at hitting 1,000 points in his senior year to help a teammate score for the first time.
The investigation into Tom's death is still open. Greg said they trust in the law enforcement and talk to them often about the activity of the case. They hope to get answers someday about what really happened to their son that September in 2014.
"We haven't forgotten that he died," Greg said. "We just want to remember that he lived."