My Turn: A once bright life that took a tragic turn

Last week, while rummaging through some files that were destined for the recycling bin, I came across a card that immediately gave me a heavy heart.

It was written some 30 years ago by a then promising high school student who I helped mentor as he began working at the local newspaper, where many budding journalism stars were born. Two years later, the gifted and industrious student was found dead at his home of self-inflicted means, leaving behind friends and family who were left to wonder about a premature death that became a painful fact of life.

His was a story seemingly framed in tragedy from his upbringing in the shadow of the Vietnam War to a final resting place atop a cemetery hill half a world away.

An honor roll student, he came to the United States in 1979 at the age of 7 as one of thousands of refugees from the war in Indochina. He settled in small town America with his aunts, uncle, and cousins, quickly gaining a grasp of the English language and the wonders of life in the U.S.A.

Throughout his schooling, he displayed an artistic flair that belied his tender age. In 1987, his design was chosen for the local fair book cover. Two years later, his talents were in the spotlight again when his design work served to promote a summer festival all over town.

But a knack for art was just one facet of his skillset and his desire to serve school and community.

In high school, he was a member of the National Honor Society, the Future Problem Solvers Club, and the cross county team. In 1989, he was chosen the male “Student of the Year” for the sophomore class.

Ironically, several days before his death, he was saluted by the Student Council as the male “Student of the Month” for the senior class.

For the better part of 5 years, he worked at the newspaper, handling various circulation duties in the distribution of the company’s three weekly publications. He was a hard-working and cheerful member of the newspaper team, gladly accepting any assignment and carrying it out with the ease of a polished pro.

He especially enjoyed an opportunity to display his artistic talents when an ad-builder would come calling, offering his creative zest to the display ads that were the financial bread-and-butter of the weekly newspapers.

His talents as a cross county runner also were in demand at the paper each autumn when the local hospital sponsored a 5-kilometer race to promote cardiac health and awareness. His presence added some zip to a team top-heavy with past-our-prime runners.

It was as runners that we would regularly cross paths around town – he sporting an ever-present bounce in his step and me hoping someday to keep him within hailing distance again.

Last week, as we “crossed paths” one more time, I could only remember his infectious smile and the promise of a bright life that came to a sad and puzzling end.