In times like this, let’s remember the smile, not the manner of death

Almost immediately Saturday evening I knew something was wrong.
Josh and his girlfriend, Morgan, had just walked through the door after a long, hot day at the New Hampton Invitational baseball tournament
Morgan looked like she was about to burst into tears at any moment.
“Is everything OK?”
“A Nashua kid died today at the quarry,” Josh somberly answered and then told me that Morgan had just heard that Sam Hake had drowned at the popular swimming spot in Chickasaw Park.
I was quite simply stunned.
Earlier in the day — as temperatures soared into the 90s — Josh had told me that the kids were thinking about going to the quarry after the tournament and after they made the rounds of graduation parties.
Although recalling that earlier conversation gave me a start, I still had trouble grasping what had happened at that quarry.
I won’t pretend I knew Sam Hake well, but I still remember that unmistakable smile he gave me when I went snapped his picture at last year’s Chickasaw County 4-H and FFA Achievement Show.
“Geez Mr. Fenske,” he said, “you take my picture every year here. Should we just meet up next year and do it again?”
God, how I wish we could do just that when 4-H and FFA members from around the county gather in July for the fair.
Hake was one of those kids who was hard not to like. He was involved in a myriad of activities — ranging from 4-H to cross country to basketball to choir to band — and he had that smile. He wasn’t the best runner or the best basketball player, but every time I saw him compete, he always seemed to be giving it everything he had.
And now, at the age of 17 and four school days from completing his junior year, he is gone.
In this business, there are plenty of hard jobs to do, but nothing is more difficult, at least for me, than writing a story about the death of a young person. In 30-plus years, I’ve written at least a dozen stories about the deaths of young people, and writing the story on the front page of this paper was just as difficult as the first one I wrote back in 1987.
They just don’t get any easier; if anything, they’ve gotten even harder.
Some of it is that I now have kids who are the same age as Sam Hake. I can’t imagine what his parents and siblings are going through, but I saw the pain on Morgan Kapping’s face Saturday evening and I have an idea what his friends and schoolmates are going through.
I applaud Nashua-Plainfield High School for opening its doors on Monday morning and having counselors on hand to help Sam’s grieving friends work through the process. If anything, I’m glad those kids at Nashua-Plainfield have school this week because that routine, I believe, will be a blessing.
Over the past couple of days, I’ve realized that we as parents can do only one thing in the face of tragedies like this, and that is hold our children tight, let them know we love them and that, no matter the time or the place, we are there for them.
Yet, my heart hurts for Nashua-Plainfield today.
Five years ago this September, the school went through another tragedy when a senior boy named Alex Potratz died in a car accident.
I remember those days like they happened yesterday, but what I recall most about that horrible week in September 2013 was how a school and a community came together to support Alex’s family.
And now, they will have to do it again, and I hope beyond hope that this is the last time I’ll ever had to write a column like this.
In the end, maybe there are no words that can comfort Sam’s family and friends, but I believe with every fiber of my being that we must try and we must remember those who have passed away not so much for their manner of deaths but for the lives they have led.
So today, I leave you with this: Sam Hake had a wonderful smile, and that’s how I’ll always remember him.

New Hampton Tribune

121 West Main Street
New Hampton, IA 50659
Phone: (641) 394-2111

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