Hillsboro High sophomore Jorge Hanschu turned 16 last week. His 15-year-old friend Jacob Oden of Sterling never will.
Jacob died Aug. 3 when a car struck the truck he was riding in at a country road intersection north of Sterling, one where tall corn blocked both drivers’ views. Jacob wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and was ejected from the truck.
That evening HHS sophomore Darian Ratzlaff, another friend of Jacob’s, received a text message that left him reeling.
“One of the Sterling kids texted me and was telling me about when the funeral was,” Darian said. “I didn’t even know it had happened yet. I was super lost and confused.”
A flurry of text messages ensued, and the news finally sunk in.
“It was an awful feeling hearing that,” Darian said.
Jorge was at home playing video games when Darian called to tell him what happened.
“It didn’t seem possible something like that could happen,” Jorge said. “I just saw him not even that long ago. I was just kind of shocked the rest of the night.”
Seventh grade sports brought the boys into contact, and it was through sports that their friendships grew.
“I knew him from seventh grade track,” Jorge said. “He was a sprinter and I was a sprinter. We were the fastest ones and we were always right next to each other. We’d talk while the slower heats were going.”
Friendship came naturally, Darian said.
“We’d talk about our school life, our classes, our teachers, our friends,” he said. “He was easy to get along with, easy to talk to, funny.”
“You could say anything and he could turn it into a joke,” Jorge added.
Jorge, Darian, and fellow classmate Joe Knoll wanted to go to the funeral both to support Jacob’s family and honor their friend, but none of them were old enough to drive.
Having overheard their conversation, senior Preston Loewen offered to take them.
The mood on the drive to Sterling was subdued, Darian said.
“We were still all in shock that it happened, trying to get it all processed.”
Reality hit when they arrived at Sterling United Methodist Church, where Jorge estimated about 600 people were in attendance. As they walked in he noticed an open casket off to the side.
“I thought, ‘I know that guy; I spent three or four years competing against that guy, and he’s laying in a casket,’” Jorge said. “That was crazy.”
Jacob’s mother, Heather, led the service, with family members and others taking turns sharing thoughts and memories. One message made an impression on Darian.
“They said, ‘It wasn’t about the quantity of years he lived, but the quality of those 15 years,’” he said. “That was really good.”
The message was driven home for both Jorge and Darian shortly after that when anyone whose life was touched by Jacob was asked to stand. Nearly the entire congregation rose.
“I was amazed,” Darian said.
Jorge said he was moved by how people sang together.
“The entire congregation sang,” he said. “It didn’t matter where you’re from, everyone was ther supporting him and singing. It kind of gave me goosebumps.”
The drive home felt completely opposite from the drive to Sterling, Jorge said.
“Instead of being sad about it and shocked, it was kind of like, ‘OK, these are the good times we had with him,’” he said.
“We were celebrating his life; that really lightened it up talking about everything that he did,” he said.
Some texts read during the service impressed upon both boys that Jacob’s simple acts were among the most important.
“He touched so many; there’s tons of ways he did,” Jorge said. “Just making people smile in the hallway, being his best friend, or playing against him, like us. You don’t realize that by just saying ‘Hi’ to someone or telling a joke that you’re going to touch someone.”
The lesson should find its way onto the football field.
“Even on sports teams you have groups here and there,” Jorge said. “Maybe it’s not just liking some of the guys on the field, but trying to like all the guys on the field, make them more than just your teammates.”
The boys said they hoped that by sharing their experience, fellow students would be more careful when driving and buckle up.
It takes Jorge a little longer to drive to town from his country home because of Jacob.
“There have been a few times I’ve been driving and I was 10 yards from the intersection and all of a sudden there’s a car going 60 right in front of me,” he said. “I’ve always thought it isn’t going to happen to me.”
Both boys said they weren’t planning on doing anything special to keep Jacob’s memory alive.
“I don’t think we’ll need to remind ourselves,” Darian said. “He’ll always be in our heads and our hearts.”