Jackson graduate dies in kayak accident

  • Mon Apr 2nd, 2012 9:05pm
  • News

By Eric Stevick Herald Writer

Christopher Gormley, a 2011 Henry M. Jackson High School graduate known for his intelligence, hard work and sincerity, died Sunday after his kayak capsized on a chilly eastern Washington lake.

The first-year Gonzaga University student was in a kayak that overturned during gusting winds on Rock Lake south of Spokane, according to the Whitman County Sheriff’s Office.

Emergency crews and residents from nearby St. John launched boats to search for him and another student who was reported missing just after noon Sunday.

They were found about a mile north of a boat launch. Both were taken to Spokane hospitals where Gormley was pronounced dead. The other student was treated and released.

“High winds causing large waves apparently caused the kayaks to capsize,” Whitman County sheriff’s Sgt. C.R. Chapman said in a written statement.

At the time of the accident, the air temperature was 34 degrees.

All the boaters, including Gormley, were wearing life jackets, Chapman said.

The outing was part of a day trip, Gonzaga University spokeswoman Mary Joan Hahn said. The event was organized through the Gonzaga Outdoors program under a contract with the City of Spokane Parks and Recreation Department.

Gormley was a top scholar at Jackson High School. Last year, he was named Jackson’s winner of the prestigious Everett School District superintendent scholarship. Just one student from each high school receives the honor each year. Each must be ranked within the top 5 percent of their graduating class and score within the top 5 percent on national SAT exams.

Gormley, who recently turned 18, arrived at Gonzaga in the fall with enough credits to enroll as a junior. He was majoring in political science and was part of the university’s honors program.

He immersed himself in school life at the Jesuit university, performing in the school’s fall production of “The Three Musketeers.” He played the roles of Treville, the father of D’artagnan and Sabine, as well as a cardinal guard and a bar thug.

“He was well loved and respected by all cast and production crew,” said Summer Berry, a member of the theater arts faculty at Gonzaga. “We are very sad over here in the theater.”

Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh said the university was “profoundly saddened” by Gormley’s death.

“His parents said Chris’ dream was to attend Gonzaga, which he loved, and he was proud to be a Zag,” McCulloh said in a statement released by the university.

“All of us at Gonzaga join together to extend our deepest sympathies to Chris’ parents, Chris and Susan Gormley, his 13-year-old brother, Tim, and his entire family,” McCulloh said.

Gormley also served on the university’s residence hall block council.

Staff and students from Jackson High School recalled a tall, slender student known for his kindness and work ethic.

“He was exceptional,” Assistant Principal Nyla Fritz said. “He had a smile that could light up a room. I think it’s safe to say he was wise beyond his years.”

For his Eagle Scout project, Gormley built a podium that is used at school assemblies and speeches.

Fritz said Gormley took some of the school’s most challenging classes to soak up knowledge rather than fret about a grade.

Jackson Principal Terry Cheshire tells the story about a young freshman several years ago. He and his administrative team were tired and hungry after an orientation session and went to get a bite to eat.

An incoming ninth-grader came up to him and said, “Mr. Cheshire my name is Chris Gormley and I am going to be a freshman at Jackson next year. I want you to know that it is a pleasure to meet you and I am looking forward to coming to your school.”

“To be honest, I was shocked that any young person would have the courage to approach a group of adults that he didn’t know with such confidence,” Cheshire said. “After he walked away I turned to the other administrators and said, ‘That young man is destined to be something special.’

“Chris was something special,” Cheshire said. “He was an excellent student, an even better human being, and he was a young man who loved his parents and his little brother. I will miss Chris and I am sad that we have lost an amazing young man.”

Megan Hickman, a Jackson senior, got to know Gormley in the saxophone section of the school’s wind ensemble.

“He was always really positive and fun,” she said. “He was funny but it was never at the expense of other people. He was never using someone else to make the joke.”

There was one exception. He could poke fun at himself.

During last spring’s superintendent scholarship event, students were asked to say something about an influential teacher.

Gormley chose Rose Smith, who taught a culminating exhibition class in which seniors take on a large project and reflect on learning.

“Having spent years in honors and (college-level) Advanced Placement courses, I admit that I felt above having to prove my ability to learn through a baseline display of my abilities, a project which all students must complete in order to graduate,” Gormley said. “Ms. Smith quickly deflated my head, though I am sure those who know me will still say otherwise.”

Fritz, the assistant principal, said she always looked forward to Gormley’s visits to his alma mater.

“You knew he was destined for great things,” she said.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com.