Willis remembered as role model who ‘led by his actions’

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 21, 2008

FRANKLIN—At lunch on Thursday at Franklin High School, students placed a wool cap on an otherwise empty seat.

It was to memorialize a student who would no longer be sharing lunch with his schoolmates.

Josh Willis passed away at home before school started on Wednesday, and the cap was there to remind students of the popular senior.

Willis was &uot;famous for his hats,&uot; said English teacher Linda Soucek.

The mood at the school on Thursday was solemn, and Soucek said teachers and students were leaning on one another for strength.

&uot;The halls were empty this morning,&uot; Soucek said, &uot;but we needed each other.&uot;

She said while some students arrived late, most eventually did return to school after Wednesday’s early dismissal to support each other just one day after Willis died of undetermined causes. On Wednesday after students were dismissed, Soucek said that most teachers and staff members stayed together and reminisced about the good things that made Willis who he was.

Athletic Director Darren Parker coached the four-year, two-sport letterman in high school and even in younger leagues. Parker was at Southampton Memorial Hospital with Willis’ mother when she received the news of her son’s death.

&uot;It’s been difficult for (his teammates),&uot; Parker said. &uot;Josh was well-loved.

&uot;He was quiet, but he got along with everyone.&uot;

Willis was also a role model for some of the younger students.

&uot;He took a lot of (them) under his wing,&uot; Parker said. &uot;The kids really respected him.

&uot;They were led by his actions.&uot;

The coach noted that he had received many phone calls from coaches, players, referees and officials of surrounding schools offering their condolences.

&uot;We’ve received a lot of support from surrounding schools,&uot; said Guidance Counselor Ale Massenburg.

She said that students and faculty were &uot;coping as best as they can.&uot;

&uot;They are naturally upset,&uot; she said. &uot;It was an unexpected death.&uot;

She said that faculty was trying to &uot;stay strong for the students,&uot; as well.

Massenburg said that three counselors provided by the Western Tidewater Community Services Board were on hand to help students on Thursday and also will be at the school today. Afterward, they may be called on an as-needed basis.

&uot;We had local pastors from the community who were available all day to help counsel and console kids and faculty,&uot; she said.

A fellow senior and football teammate, DeAndr\u00E9 Taylor, said Willis was a go-getter.

&uot;Whenever he wanted something, he readily went to go get it,&uot; he said.

&uot;He was passionate about everything he liked, (such as) rapping, basketball and football.

&uot;The first game of this past season, he scored the winning touchdown against Northampton High School.&uot;

Another member of the football team and a junior, Donald Overton, described Willis as different.

&uot;He was the unexpected,&uot; Overton said. &uot;The type of group he was with, he was the positive one.

&uot;He was the one that everyone wanted to succeed. And since he did succeed, now that he’s gone—everyone is shocked.&uot;

Several activities are under way to help Josh’s family and to keep his memory alive. Parker said that among the projects in which the athletic department is engaged, the teammates intend on placing a permanent plaque in the gymnasium.

The school has collected food and donated it to the family, and a bulletin board in front of the cafeteria is a place for student expressions—whether it be for messages to Josh, poems or photos.

According to Senior Class Sponsor Rose Parker, a candlelight vigil has been planned for 8 p.m. today at Armory Field &uot;just to come together,&uot; she said.

&uot;Class President Mollie Blythe will speak. I have also asked coaches Darren Parker and Danny Dillon to speak.&uot;

Participants are asked to bring their own candles, and they may even be jar candles.

&uot;We just want people to be careful of the type of candles that will drip wax,&uot; she said.

When the day was over at 2:35 p.m., the students moved toward the buses fairly quietly. Every now and then, a few would stop and gather to read special memorial messages posted on the school’s walls.

&uot;He’ll be missed,&uot; said Coach Parker, &uot;but God knows best.&uot;