Samantha McGraw met Sierra Bush when they sat next to each other in a geology class at Meridian Technical Charter High School.
It didn’t take long for them to become friends.
“She was very unique; she was odd and she embraced it ... The fact that she was so comfortable with herself was sort of a draw to me,” McGraw told the Statesman. “She was funny and witty. She was kind and outgoing. She was always willing to lend a helping hand to anyone who needed it.”
Those themes were repeated frequently Wednesday night during a vigil at Boise State University that drew about 250 people, all trying to come to terms with Tuesday’s news that the bright, creative freshman had been found dead over the weekend near Idaho City.
Some called her Sierra; others knew her as Simon. Several Boise State officials referred to Bush as Sierra Simon, using the pronouns “they” and “them” to describe her.
And as friends’ memories rolled out during the vigil, the plural seemed appropriate for a deeply distinctive person with many sides — brave, funny, brilliant, energetic, accepting, pun-prone.
“They, them, she, her, he, him ... It didn’t matter,” McGraw told the vigil crowd. “She was all about embracing who you really are.
“All of us coming into high school were very insecure in who we were and what we were doing,” McGraw said earlier, describing her circle of friends as “misfits.” “The fact that she was able to be her in all of her quirkiness and be completely fine with it was something that was very refreshing and encouraging to the rest of us.”
Another member of that circle, Evan O’Beine, quoted one of Bush’s most memorable sayings: “If I can be as weird as I am, be as you as you are.”
McGraw said sometimes her friend felt feminine and other times masculine. Some people describe that as being gender fluid.
“It was just two different sides of the same person. Two different names of the same person,” McGraw said. “It didn’t matter what she was going by, she was still the same person all of us knew.”
O’Beine said he met Bush during eighth-grade orientation at the Meridian school and was immediately drawn to her and her bright, knitted Pikachu hat.
O’Beine and other close friends at the vigil honored Bush by wearing black T-shirts with rainbow lettering declaring “Let’s Get Weird.”
BSU President Bob Kustra issued a statement Tuesday saying Bush left an indelible mark on many students, faculty and staff. She was enrolled in the Honors College, and she had an interest in becoming an aeronautical engineer or pursuing an English degree but hadn’t picked between the two disciplines. McGraw said she would have been successful no matter which direction she had gone.
Many who attended the vigil knew Bush from the many Boise State activities she embraced, from beekeeping to creative writing.
Micaela Smith, president of a campus creative writing club, called Bush “sarcastic, off-topic, witty and razor sharp.”
“I have never met anyone else who sweated over a writing piece like Simon did,” Smith said. “I have never met anyone so pure and good as Simon.”
Danielle Hollis and Alyson Carico shared the podium to recount a Boise State class in which everyone was asked to write about their dream for the future. Bush’s dream stole the show.
“She wanted to own a small bookstore and live in a flat above it,” Hollis said.
“With cats and tea,” Carico added.
Bart Green, Bush’s stepfather, said he and his wife learned that Sierra attended at least one meeting at the Gender Equity Center at Boise State. He said he didn’t know whether Bush had identified herself as part of the LGBT community or whether she was supporting two of her friends who are lesbians.
“We didn’t know anything about Sierra going by Simon until after she disappeared,” Green said. “We didn’t know if she was just using it online for internet security purposes or it was something more than that.”
The Boise Police Department, which is assisting Boise County in its investigation, has said that Bush died in “suspicious circumstances.”
Bush was reported missing last month. She was last seen Sept. 24 at her family’s home near Maple Grove and Goddard roads in Boise. Her body was found Saturday evening just south of Idaho City.
Family members told the Statesman in early October that they believed Bush had been abducted.
Tamara Fox Phillips met Bush through an online art website. She said Bush was a talented artist who also made costumes and was active in the Idaho Cosplayers, a group of costume enthusiasts.
“You don’t get put in the nerd community for nothing, I guess,” Phillips said, laughing. “But she was a really good artist and she could craft up a storm.”
Bush was outgoing with her friends but a little introverted when meeting someone new, she said.
She said Bush loved anime, the Japanese art form made up of hand-drawn or computer animation. She was especially drawn to the character Prussia from the series Hetalia: Axis Powers.
Phillips said she hopes authorities are able to figure out how Bush was killed and, if there was foul play, find the person responsible.
“Somebody’s got to know something. It’s just too bad,” Phillips said. “And, God, your imagination runs wild. She was missing for a month.”
Ryan Benson was a year ahead of Bush at Meridian Technical Charter High, where Bush’s mother, Mary Helen Green, serves as a counselor.
“Both Mary Helen and Sierra just radiate kindness,” Benson said.
On Wednesday, Benson established a GoFundMe campaign to pay for funeral expenses and to provide money for charities that were important to Bush. They include the Idaho Humane Society, where Bush volunteered, and the King of Glory Lutheran Church Mission Endowment Fund, which provides money to the Luther Heights Bible Camp, the Interfaith Sanctuary and the Salvation Army, among other causes.
By 9 p.m. Wednesday, the fund had raised $4,737.
Events to honor Bush
At Wednesday’s vigil, Boise State officials announced several efforts to remember the freshman.
Bow tie day: In a nod to one of Bush’s favorite fashion accessories, the university is encouraging people to wear bow ties on Friday.
Memorial service: 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 29, King of Glory Lutheran Church, 3430 N. Maple Grove Road.
Dia de los Muertos: One of the altars at the Boise State celebration of the Day of the Dead on Nov. 1 will honor Bush, and friends are invited to suggest items to feature at the altar, Dean of Students Christian Wuthrich said.