April 4, 2012 in City

‘Brilliant’ young man gone too soon

Gonzaga student Gormley died in kayak accident
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photoBuy this photo

Chris Birmingham hugs another student as mourners file into the chapel at Gonzaga University Tuesday at the memorial Mass for Chris Gormley, who died on a kayak outing over the weekend.
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They filled the front pews, all clad in blue T-shirts stamped with a single word on the front: “nerd.”

They had come, these members of the Gonzaga Honors Program – like those who surrounded them in the packed University Chapel at Gonzaga’s College Hall – to celebrate the short but vivid life of Christopher James Gormley, their classmate, academic provocateur, outdoor enthusiast and proud fellow nerd.

“He had the most incredible appetite for knowledge,” said Jacob Troxel, a 19-year-old freshman and friend of Gormley. “He absolutely loved to learn. It didn’t matter the subject, it didn’t matter who was teaching it. Chris listened and Chris learned.”

Gormley died Sunday while kayaking on Rock Lake in Whitman County. Even that was, in a way, a pursuit of learning, according to his father, Chris Gormley – the kayak had been a gift for his son’s 18th birthday and for completing his Eagle Scout work. His birthday was March 27, four days before his death, and he’d already taken the kayak out a few times.

There are still a lot of questions about the accident, which occurred on a student group trip led by a city guide, on a day with windy weather and choppy waters. Chris Gormley Sr. said he’s still waiting to learn more.

“It’s hard to figure out what they were even doing out there,” he said. “We’re not really sure what happened.”

Whatever the details, it’s the kind of event that assails your sense of a natural order: An 18-year-old dying in those thrilling years of youth, during his first year at the college he’d dreamed of attending, as he was rapidly making a name for himself as an extraordinary young man.

“It’s not right,” said the Rev. Tim Clancy, in his homily Tuesday. “It’s not right for parents to bury a child. It’s not right for teachers to eulogize their students. It’s not right for young people to have to attend a memorial service for one of their own. It’s not right.”

Clancy said it’s important to recognize that through fellowship and faith, ritual and prayer, scripture and communion, people can bear what seems unbearable.

“Death is a mystery,” he said. “But God is a greater mystery still, and it is our faith that God swallows up death, robs death of the last word.”

Gormley, who graduated from Henry M. Jackson High in Everett, was remembered as an extraordinary student. He had already achieved enough credits to rank as a junior during his freshman year. A member of the Honor Society, he could speak fluent Spanish, enjoyed photography and the outdoors, and loved to engage others – just about anyone else, friends say – in long conversations.

“You always walked away from talking to him feeling like you mattered,” said Rachel Hildie, an 18-year-old freshman.

Gormley loved the outdoors and went on many of the outdoor club activities this year, Hildie said. He loved the full-moon snowshoeing trip. He kept his own kayak at school and often took it out at 5 in the morning.

“He was mad as a hatter,” said classmate Tyler Laferriere, 19. “And just as brilliant.”

Gormley had quickly developed a reputation in class and during conversation as a rhetorical bomb thrower. Clancy recalled that once, during a discussion of helping the less fortunate, Gormley dragged out Scrooge’s famous response to a plea to help the poor in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

His father said this tendency to play the devil’s advocate started early in his teens, when he would challenge his father’s conservative beliefs. He was a smart kid who’d skipped third grade, started reading the classics early and valued intellectual pursuits.

“He’d bring up something that he knew would just torque me, and we’d debate,” said Gormley, a retired police officer who works as an investigator for an insurance company. “It was something I looked forward to every night.”

His intent was to provoke argument, to force people to consider the cracks in their case, to deepen his knowledge, his friends said. Laferriere summed it up this way: “There are chinks in the armor. Find them.”

During his homily, Clancy noted that Gormley had, in his application essay to the honors program, pledged to stop taking “ridiculous stands” simply to provoke arguments – a comment that drew a big laugh from the packed pews.

“As I can attest and as your laughter attests, he fell off that wagon,” Clancy said – adding that he could imagine Gormley engaging Christ in debate at the pearly gates.

Gormley performed in the October production of “The Three Musketeers;” the plumed hat from his role as Treville was hung next to his photo at a reception after the memorial Mass.

The Rev. Kevin Connell, principal at Gonzaga Prep and the play’s director, was co-celebrant at the service.

He told of being approached about auditions by Gormley, a “tall, athletic young man with a commanding voice.”

Gormley told Connell he had to be in the play despite the fact that he had no theater experience, because “ ‘This is my favorite book. I’ve read the whole thing.’ ”

“Even I hadn’t read the whole thing,” Connell said of the huge French novel the play is based on.

Gormley’s parents attended the memorial, along with his younger brother. Following the service at a reception, they greeted their son’s fellow students, embraced the people from his university community and told them how much he’d loved it here. Gormley Sr. said that, as hard as this has been, there was a measure of solace in hearing so many people express appreciation and love for his son – in learning that so many others shared his high opinion of his boy.

“He was a hell of a kid,” he said. “Like a 17-year-old 80-year-old – very wise.”

At the reception, the members of the honors program approached the family with a gift. Three of those blue honors program T-shirts, one for Gormley’s father, mother and brother. Each one stamped proudly with the word “nerd.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman. com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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