Tragedy Turns to Celebration at Eugene High School
Here is a story that has had me in tears since I read it; tears of sadness mixed with tears of hope. It’s a story of two teenage boys from South Eugene High School in Yachats, Oregon, who lost their lives in a bizarre drowning accident, but whose legacy has brought a whole community profoundly closer.
On Saturday, February 5, a group of teens were hanging out together throwing Frisbees and footballs at Smelt Sands State Park near Yachats, Oregon, when three of them, who were standing on rocks which jutted into the water, were hit by high waves and knocked into the surf. Jack Harnsongkram and Connor Ausland drowned, but the other teen was able to swim to safety.
The community was devastated by this tragedy, but instead of being defined by their grief, they have found inspirational ways of redefining their future because of their grief. And it started with the first basketball game this past Wednesday since the tragic deaths of these two boys.
Connor Asuland had been on the basketball team, so Wednesday’s game had all the potential of becoming a morbidly sad event. Instead, with the help of those who had known and loved these two boys, it turned into a celebration of their lives and an affirmation of what they had held so dear. A record-breaking crowd showed up for Wednesday’s game in matching white shirts with Connor’s number 35 on the front and the names of both boys on the back. Connor’s jersey hung on the wall by the basketball hoop, and when the team took the floor, only 4 boys started, in honor of their lost teammate.
During half time, the boys’ fathers came down onto the basketball court to cheers and a standing ovation from the crowd and talked about their boys; the tragedy of their deaths but the hope and comfort they were receiving from their community.
Connor’s father, Greg Ausland, spoke first. He talked about the young man who clearly was so well-liked by his classmates when he said, “Connor loved high school. He absolutely loved it. He loved people. People loved him back, and they wanted to be a part of his world.” He talked about the kind of boy his son was, who reached out to those who were on the fringes and made them feel that they belonged. And friends of Jack Harnsongkram described him in the same way; he was someone who reached out to everyone and whose smile lit up the hallways of South Eugene, hallways that seem dark now.
Greg Ausland went on to say, “Of all the cards that have been coming in, I’d say that three-fourths have mentioned his smile and how that lit up the room. That helps me go on and it makes me feel better to know that you’re also thinking of his smile, smiling, and it helps you go on as well.”
Saman Harnsongkram, Jack’s father made his plea very simply but very eloquently when he said, “Make sure that every day, say ‘I love you’ to whoever you love, Mom and Dad, kids. So make sure that you do that because when they’re gone, it’s too late.” As they reached the end of their heartfelt comments, Saman turned to the crowd and then in turn to Ausland, and in a tearful voice, he told them he loved them, and as Greg hugged him, he told Saman he loved him, too.
As the two walked off the court, the crowd of almost 3,000 people stood up and chanted, “We love you! We love you!”
The night was about honoring these two special seniors and about trying to heal some of the pain. It wasn’t about winning or putting on a show, but amazingly, beautifully they did win, beating Churchill 42-33.
As Taylor VanderKley, one of Ausland’s closest friends said of Connor afterwards, “He was there in spirit tonight. He willed us to victory; he was in all of our hearts. We always dreamed as kids growing up that someday we would fill every bleacher in the South Eugene gym. Connor was looking down on us, giving a great big smile, knowing that all of these people were here for him. This wasn’t about us winning, or about Churchill losing. It was about Connor and Jack and the community coming together to show support and love and care. I’m just so proud of every single person in this gym. It’s just great! I love life!”
I couldn’t have ended this any better if I had tried. The love and courage of this community speaks volumes about persevering. May we all face adversity with the same courage and hope.