Dozens of young people clad in orange T-shirts converged on Scoville Park during an evening vigil last week to remember an Oak Park and River Forest High School student who died from an asthma attack on July 22.
Family members and friends of Andrew Johnson-Cheeks, 15, recalled a young man who always sported a welcoming smile, had charisma to spare and who loved science and animals.
Matt Maloney, the head varsity basketball coach at Oak Park and River Forest High School, said during the July 27 vigil that Johnson-Cheeks was “the greatest teammate we had seen in some years.”
Maloney said that members of the team met earlier that day to recall a young man who “was one of the most competitive, but one of the nicest players they’d ever meet.”
The lively teenager would push his teammates while on the floor, where “he didn’t have a friend.” Once the whistle blew, however, “he was the first to put his arm around them.”
During an interview on June 30, Johnson-Cheek’s grandmother, Patricia Cheeks, said that her grandson kept pet turtles, snakes and fish, a habit that grew from his love of animals. That love, she said, cultivated a compassion and curiosity for life itself.
“He was very smart,” she said. “He always asked questions and wanted to know something. Even if I told him no, he would say, ‘Why or why not?’ He was inquisitive.”
Anthony Clark, an OPRF teacher and Oak Park activist who helped organize Friday’s vigil, described Johnson-Cheeks as a bridge builder.
“Community is a group of individuals, living in a common area, sharing common characteristics,” Clark said. “Andrew bonded us. That’s why we’re here as a community.”
Johnson-Cheeks’ parents said Friday that they’re still processing the shock of their son’s sudden death, but they urged those in attendance to emulate their son’s glowing example.
“I’ve been waiting on him to call me,” said his father, Jonathan Cheeks. “That hurts every day, knowing I’m not going to get that call.”
Lauren Johnson, Johnson-Cheeks’ mother, recalled her son’s glowing demeanor.
“If this doesn’t teach you anything else, it’s that life is short and fleeting so whatever is in your life think positive thoughts,” she said, “because Andrew always had a smile on his face.”
That smile, Clark added, would be the teenager’s legacy.
“The way we honor Andrew is to live a little bit like Drew,” Clark said. “Look yourselves in the mirror and say, ‘How can I be better?'”