The biggest heart in town stopped beating Tuesday.
The hundreds of other hearts it touched spent Wednesday making the best of things. After all, that’s what Jesse Persons would have done.
Paralyzed last year in a farm accident, the Colfax High School valedictorian became this town’s symbol of what one could do with persistence and love and faith.
Life in a wheelchair “is no reason to sit back and say ‘I can’t do it’ and not be able to go as far as the next person, or further,” Persons said last fall after returning to school.
On Tuesday evening, three weeks after his third back operation, Persons collapsed at home with a fatal blood clot in his lungs. He had turned 19 four days earlier.
Whitman County Coroner Pete Martin said Persons had been recovering well from his Sept. 8 operation but probably developed the clot while resting afterward.
Word spread within minutes of his death at Whitman Hospital and Medical Center. Scores of friends gathered at First Baptist Church; others grieved in their homes into the early morning hours.
Throughout Wednesday, a sullen mood hung over the town like smoke from a fall stubble fire.
“It was just a matter of inconvenience that he had to deal with the operations and living in the chair,” said Colfax High Assistant Principal Tony Carter, worrying a well-folded Kleenex in his hand. “Every day he was very positive that he was going to walk again. That’s the way he lived his life. … He sure put things in perspective.”
A few blocks away, Persons’ mother slumped on her front stoop and summoned a tribute that was an act of courage in itself.
“Jesse was a very special boy, full of life, love and the Lord,” Barbara Persons, tears falling freely. “He believed that someday he would walk and now he is - he’s walking and running. He’s free of pain and he’s happy.
“The whole community is a family,” she continued. “He’s very much missed by all of it. He touched a lot of people in this last year and gave these people the courage to do things that they never thought they could do - love when they needed love.”
He stood 5 feet 4, weighed about 150 pounds, and played center for the football team.
He was captain of both the football team and the wrestling team, all while holding a 4.0 grade point average.
Persons had been helping bring in a harvest and parked a grain truck uphill from a combine that Ed Schluneger, 64, was trying to fix. The truck, which he left in third gear instead of first, rolled downhill and hit them. It shattered Schluneger’s leg in five places and broke Persons’ back.
Whitman County Chaplain Ben Benthein later recalled that, on the way to Deaconess Medical Center in Spokane, EMTs told Persons he could cuss. He refused.
He was back in school six weeks later and quickly set to work catching up on his studies. As student body president, he led off each day on the school intercom.
“You could just hear that voice booming out ‘Good morning, Colfax High School!”’ said Duane Gottschalk, Colfax principal.
“It’s all the same priorities,” Persons said in an interview last fall. First was his faith in Christ. Then school, walking, becoming a doctor.
“You realize this life is short,” he said. “You’ve got to make the most of it.”
At this spring’s graduation ceremony, Persons was the first graduate to enter the Colfax High gym.
When people near the door saw him, they stood and clapped. As other people saw him come into view, they too got up. The applause spread like a wave toward the front of the audience.
With braces up to his hips and a walker in his hands, Persons swung and pushed toward the center aisle, then turned right down the center.
The trip took something like 20 minutes. He walked the whole way.
“He was the most inspirational person I ever met in my entire life,” Melissa Ghekiere, a senior, said Wednesday.
“He had a major influence,” said Chris Danaher, a sophomore. “Whatever he did, people followed him and tried to be like him.”
After his death, Danaher added, “People that didn’t even know him were still crying, he made such an impact.”
Not everyone was crying, said Derek Cutlip, associate pastor of the Community Bible Church and head of its youth program.
The students that knew Persons best - that knew his optimism and faith - were faring best of all, he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo