Joyful. The Beatles. Funny. Taco. Bright colors. These are just some of the words and phrases shared on Dec. 23 at a Sandpoint candlelight vigil that was held to honor the life and memory of a boy taken from this world much too soon.
William Johnson, 15, a sophomore at Sandpoint High School, died Dec. 22 in a ski accident at Schweitzer Mountain Resort – a mountain Will had skied for years and knew well.
Like thousands of others, Will answered the beckoning of the incredible beauty of Schweitzer Mountain. While it is hailed as one of the top ski resorts in the country, Schweitzer is no different than other ski mountains in that the sports of skiing and snowboarding have an inherent level of risk regardless of the experience of the skier or boarder. Tragically, Will fell victim to one of those risks.
Will died after falling into a tree well – a void which forms around the base of trees in forested areas which receive snowfalls of deep powder. Will’s death is a tragedy that has hit this town hard, especially the young community members, many of whom are experiencing the death of someone close for the first time.
“Will is the first big loss for me,” said 15-year-old Buddy Chambers, who has known Will since their days in preschool.
I am personally blessed to have known Will since he was 5. His family lives down the street and my son, Kevin, and Will had been friends since kindergarten. When we learned of Will’s death one of the first things Kevin said was Will was never without a smile. He is right. No one enjoyed life more than this talented, energetic and joyful young man.
Will had three older doting, loving sisters – Juliette, Victoria and Rebecca. Their mom and dad, Susan and Brad, were so proud of the man Will had become.
“Will was liked by everyone,” said Frank Cafferty, a member of the Sandpoint Middle School staff, where Will attended seventh and eighth grade.
With an imagination and a confidence that often escapes teenagers, Will was always the entertaining one in a crowd – whether it was spontaneously joining a group of local joggers on a run during a Washington, D.C., class trip two years ago or bargaining with the woman in the ice cream truck to sell him ice cream in exchange for a shoe. Will’s sense of humor could bring laughter to anyone even when they were having a horrible day.
“You never saw Will in a bad mood. He was an energetic and funny kid and could always bring a smile to your face,” said Chambers, who added that his friend’s death has made him mindful of spending more time with his own family.
Within days of Will’s death, a Facebook page titled “R.I.P. William Johnson 1994-2009” already had more than 600 followers – a sign of just how many lives this boy touched. Struggling to make sense of this tragedy, friends, relatives and classmates have used the Facebook Web site to share their memories. One classmate writes that William Johnson is the definition of the happiest, funniest kid that walked the face of the earth.
Another classmate writes, “Will, (your) smile and your attitude toward everything was infectious. You could always brighten the mood in a room, even if it was already as bright as we thought it could be.”
Described by his family as a true Renaissance man, Will excelled in anything he put his mind to. Will played the saxophone, bassoon, guitar, trombone and bagpipes. He enjoyed running on the Sandpoint High School cross country team, which this year was coached in part by his sister Rebecca.
Chambers knows Monday will be a difficult day as the students head back to school. But he said he has learned some important lessons from Will’s death.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to the candlelight vigil, but my mom told me that while it may be hard for me to go, it may not be as bad for other people if I was there, too,” said Chambers, who also found comfort in visiting with Will’s family on Christmas morning.
As we say goodbye to this amazing young man, I know Will’s laughter and smile will echo in the hearts of this community for years to come. And for those who don’t know how to say goodbye, perhaps we can all take a lead from a Christmas post on Facebook by Will’s sister Rebecca. “Good night sweet prince. Merry Christmas my lovely brother. Sleep in heavenly peace.”