If you google Johnathan Wentz, you’ll find an impressive record of a paralympic equestrian competitor. Johnathan rode for America in the 2012 paralympics in London. You’ll see a young man born with cerebral palsy who overcame the odds and found success in horseback riding. You’ll also see that just after his London performance, he tragically and suddenly passed away.
The fact that Johnathan was born with a semi-invisible illness and went on to achieve truly inspiring things is not the reason I wanted to write about him. I’m proud to share that story too – but I knew Johnathan from way back when. He had been inspiring me long before he rode in London. I want to write down my memoir of Johnathan, short though it may be. We weren’t close friends, but we marched side by side in the fraternity of Southern high school marching band. For anyone unfamiliar with this culture, we were a band of brothers. To me, Johnathan was family, along with every other band member. And I know he felt the same way about me – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let me start at the beginning – Johnathan Wentz went to high school with me. He stood out because he had a service dog – a beautiful golden retriever named Royal.
This video shows the Johnathan I knew – back when he was just a young buck in high school. You can see Royal running around there too, along with my high school band’s percussion director and hey, you can even spot me there if you look close. I’m the second colorguard girl in the row closest to the camera. I had no idea I was in this video – and it was kind of spooky to spot myself.
Of course, everybody knew and loved Royal, Johnathan’s dog. I always felt unsure how to act. I really wanted to pet Royal all the time, but wasn’t sure if it was rude to do so. What was the etiquette for service dogs? Are we supposed to pretend they aren’t there? Or is it ok to treat them like – well, dogs! I didn’t know. Royal was a sweet dog. Occasionally he would throw back his head and bay loudly if the band was out of tune. I loved that. He had his own marching band uniform and was every bit a member of our band as Johnathan was. That dog marched shoulder to shoulder with us, and he was one of the team.
I’ll never forget – during my junior year we did a show where the “pit” (large percussion instruments that cannot be marched – like xylophones and gongs) was actually out on the field. I had a solo, so at one point I broke away from the rest of the guard and ducked into the pit equipment for a few measures before running out for my solo. I happened to land at Johnathan and, by association, Royal. One morning we were rehearsing and it was freezing cold. There was frost on the field and it was still dark. The colorguard girls cacooned up in their flags for warmth. When we ran the show and I came in for my landing with Johnathan and Royal, I was shaking like a leaf. Royal looked up at me with those sweet golden retriever eyes, as if to say “Well, come on.” So I buried my face and hands in his long soft fur, and he put his head on me. It was like he cared that I was cold, even though I was basically a stranger.
When I heard that Royal had passed away, I actually cried. He had shown me kindness, and he was a part of our band family. He died about a year before Johnathan followed.
Like my memory of Royal, I only have one real memory with Johnathan. And, like Royal’s story, this one is of another simple act of kindness.
During our senior year, the band took a trip to Disney World. My friends and I wanted to ride the Kali River Rapids, a water raft ride that’s extremely popular in the summertime. We were prepared for a long wait. Johnathan was there without Royal, so he was in a wheelchair. We saw him and his friends cut ahead in the handicapped line. The ride operator asked if this was his whole group. There were 4 or 5 of them but the ride could seat twice that. So Johnathan glanced over his shoulder, spotted us, and said “Them. They’re with me.” And we were ecstatic. We hopped the ropes and got straight on the raft.
That’s Johnathan looking at the camera. It was a small act of kindness but he totally didn’t have to do it. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. Like I said before, band is a family. Facebook stalking all my old friends and finding these old photos has actually been quite emotional. We went through so much together. Being in band was kind of like having 500 best friends. It may sound cheesy but I still treasure all of them in my heart.
So then, Johnathan died. I don’t know a lot about horses, but I do know that Johnathan made a name for himself in the time between offering a cut in line to a group of girls he barely knew and his sudden death at the age of 22.
This TED talk was one of the last things he did on this earth. It’s short, sweet, understated, and inspiring.
I cried again when I heard that Johnathan had passed away. He was not the first of my high school friends I had lost to early death. I wasn’t able to attend his funeral, and that broke my heart even more.
My mom did go, and she brought me back this bracelet that says “Johnathan Rides On.”
When Johnathan died, I knew the full extent of what having an incurable illness felt like. I wished I could have talked to him more about it. When I knew him, I didn’t understand at all. I was afraid to even ask to pet his dog. Once I did understand, it was too late to talk about it.
Johnathan did it, though. I mean he was a paralympian – an athlete. A competitive athlete. And it’s something he would never have gotten involved with if it wasn’t for his cerebral palsy. Isn’t that insane? Isn’t that amazing? He says himself in that video that it’s a curse but it’s also a real blessing. He knew and embraced the positive side of incurable illness. Not afraid, as so many are, of letting his illness “define” him. Illness is as much a part of you as race, religion, or eye color. It just is – you don’t have to be afraid of losing your identity in it. It’s a part of who you are. Without illness, Johnathan would never have represented his country in London. That’s amazing! That’s awesome! That makes me thank God that He leads us in such mysterious ways.
But the internet is full of miracle stories. So many people know that Johnathan overcame so much. But I wanted to share my story. It’s small, and might seem unimportant. But Johnathan was not only an achiever and hero – he was kind. His kindness towards me is what I will always remember about him more than anything else.
His illness didn’t turn him in to a bitter recluse. It made him a better person. He used it to his advantage. And he was kind on top of everything else.
In the end, the small things are the big things. I wish I could have told Johnathan how much it impacted me, that he let us join him. I wish I could have thanked him for that dreary morning that Royal kept me warm. Those little things – they’re my treasures, my souvenirs from knowing them.
So today, do something kind. Because someone might hold on to that act of kindness forever. Someone might really need it. A tiny act of kindness goes a long long way.
Rest in Peace, Johnathan and Royal. I am truly grateful that I knew you.