ODU Students Mourn Paul Johnson
By: David Thornton
Hundreds of candles illuminated Kaufman Mall, each one a testament to the warm memories of Paul Johnson possessed by his family, friends, and fellow students. Unanimously described as funny, outgoing, and exceptional in every way, Johnson’s memory burns just as brightly in all who met him.
“I loved him more than I could even tell you,” said Dan Johnson, his older brother. “I was closer with him than all of my other brothers.”
“He was simple, yet extraordinary,” said Joseph Thiell, a close friend. “My world was a better place with him.”
“He was the funniest guy ever,” said Eric Hammond, his roommate. He lamented that his future children would have no “Uncle Paul” in their lives.
Hours before the vigil, temperatures dropped to near-freezing. A brisk wind chilled the campus. Johnson’s family and fellow Monarchs huddled inside Webb Center, emerging just before 7pm for the ceremony. Yet despite, and perhaps in defiance of the cold, those who remembered Johnson arrived in droves to bask in his warmth one last time.
Bright white lights chased away the shadows as the Johnson clan gravely took their seats on the terrace. A podium stood between them and a large picture of their son, all sandy hair, rosy cheeks, and sunny smile.
Volunteers moved quietly through the crowd. Remembrance cards, with Paul’s image and a message from his family, were passed clumsily between gloved hands. Numb fingers gripped candles, awaiting the instruction to light them. The crowd pressed imperceptibly closer together.
Dan Johnson’s voice broke as he remembered his brother. The inevitable, impending sobs could clearly be heard. He leaned on the podium for support, his head hanging barely above the microphone. He fought for control as he spoke fondly of his brother. “We were tight. We were always together.”
He told a story of one Christmas, where he and Paul had gotten into trouble a few days before. They spent their days, grounded, sitting in the garage, listening to music. “It would have been a lot worse if it had been just me, with nobody else to sit in the garage with me.”
Joseph Thiell, who helped to plan the ceremony, spoke in a shaky voice about Paul’s wit and sarcasm. He remembered how all of his friends melted when introduced to Paul. With evident pride for his friend’s character, he revealed that Paul’s last act was to donate his organs, so that others might live.
Reverend Mike Kuhn was hopeful in his brief sermon. He read biblical passages from the Letters of Paul, and spoke of how, in dark times, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” He asked for those in attendance to think of Paul and wonder “what is he hoping for us right now?” He called for peace on campus, and in the surrounding neighborhoods. Hundreds of tiny flames flickered into life during his sermon, before he led the crowd into the Lord’s Prayer.
Then, in perhaps the most moving moment in the ceremony, he began to sing Amazing Grace. As the crowd took up the song, he modestly stepped away from the podium.
The crowd, leaderless, continued to sing. There was no doubt that every thought was completely focused upon Paul.
Afterwards, many of Paul’s friends gathered around the family, sharing the warmth of hugs, fellowship, and Paul’s memory. Laughter and tears were in equal abundance.
Little by little, the crowd drifted away into the cold. Paul Johnson’s parents held each other in the spotlight of television news cameras, calling for better security measures on and around campus.
The candles were out, their warmth extinguished.