Family, friends, members of the University of Massachusetts community and the city of Holyoke are mourning the loss of Jonathan “Jonno” Gray, 18. A freshman kinesiology major, Gray died at his home Jan. 5.
According to those closest to him, Gray was the kind of person who was everybody’s best friend. He was an athlete, a member of his high school band, a long boarder and a student, but, according to his brother, most of all he was kind.
“He was genuine,” said his older brother Mackenzie Gray, who delivered the eulogy at his funeral. “I don’t think he ever said a bad word about anyone.”
“He set the bar really high for everyone. He was friendly, affable, and kind. As I said in my eulogy, that’s my mission now. To try to live up to the standard he set,” said Mackenzie Gray.
Gray died while exercising in his basement. His family found him after he did not respond to a call to come to dinner.
After conducting an autopsy, the Hampden County coroner was unable to find anything physically wrong with him. A toxicology report has yet to be completed.
“We have been told that it is likely that we will never know what happened,” said Mackenzie Gray.
In high school, Gray made a name for himself as an athlete despite a rocky start on the football field.
“When I saw him as a freshman, I thought, ‘I’ll get him on the field when we are way ahead.’ He was a nice, lovable kid,” said Bob Lastowski, who as both the football and track coach, coached Gray for a total of 12 seasons over his four years.
Gray, who was an offensive lineman on the football team and threw javelin, discuss and shot put in track and field, was “undersized” for his positions, so he hit the weight room and did “his thing,” according to his former coach.
By his senior year, Gray was a starter on the football team and broke Holyoke High School’s indoor shot put record with a throw of 43 feet 1 inch.
According to Lastowski, Gray won every indoor meet during the 2011 season.
“I never thought he would start [in football],” said Lastowski. “He was an overachiever. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but he never should have done what he did.”
But, Gray was determined to play sports from day one. Born and raised in Holyoke, he attended Hatfield Elementary School and Smith Academy through the school choice program. But, when it was time to choose where to attend high school, Gray opted to go to the Holyoke High School, said Lastowski. It had a football team and track team, unlike Smith Academy.
“I think he just really loved sports,” Lastowski said about Gray’s decision to become a kinesiology major.
At UMass, Gray joined the rowing team, where he told Lastowski he had found his niche. Gray had been recruited by the team at freshman orientation, according to Tony Cronin, head coach of the men’s rowing team.
“We weren’t talking to just anyone,” said Cronin. “We sought out guys we thought would be good [team] members. Physically, he was strong and when we talked to him we saw he had the right demeanor to be a rower.”
As a freshman, Gray was a member of the novice rowing team, where, according to Cronin, he was a leader.
“He wasn’t a captain, because we don’t have captains on the novice team, but he led by example,” Cronin said. “He was great. Very strong and very focused.”
Gray competed three times during the fall rowing season, where he did well, according to Cronin. The team placed seventh out of 30 teams over the fall.
“When I saw him [for the first time during break], I told him he could be a running back. He was in the best shape of his life, his mom said he was drinking veggie shakes. He said he thought he found his niche in crew,” said Lastowski.
“Crew was a big deal for him at UMass,” said his brother. Over the break, the two of them would spend time together in the basement practicing rowing. Mackenzie would row on the rowing machine while Jonno would critique his form.
Gray liked to find ways to give back and teach other athletes. Forty-five minutes before Gray died, he was at the gym with the Holyoke Track Team talking to Lastowski and critiquing the shot putters, as shot put is the only throwing event offered in indoor track.
“He was asking about the current season, and how he could help,” said Lastowski. “I said sure, come in next week. I think he always remembered where he came from as an athlete. He was always there for the kid with two left feet. He would take the extra 15 minutes to help someone out,” Lastowski.
To commemorate him, several Holyoke residents arranged a candlelit vigil that was held Jan. 9 at the Roberts Field Sports Complex next to Holyoke High School, overlooking both the track and the football field where he had competed.
Hundreds of people attended the solemn event dressed in gray, with many people wearing purple and white pins that were being sold for $1 in Gray’s honor.
People chatted quietly until the first candle was lit. As the flame was passed from candle to candle, a silence descended over the crowd.
For a little over an hour, people stood on the bleachers, until an announcement was made over the loud speakers.
Holyoke firefighter Jordan Lemieux read, “Number 58, Jonathan Gray. Number 58 Jonno Gray please report … All people, be advised, Jonathan Gray, number 58, student, athlete for Holyoke High School, musician, has played his last game Jan. 5, 2012. Jonno, may God rest your soul. All people, Jonathan ‘Jonno’ Gray has returned home.”
The second time the announcer spoke he called anyone who had ever been a teammate or coach of Gray to walk a lap around the track. Walkers included members of the band, football and track and field team.
After his teammates finished their lap, members of the family and friends walked their own lap around the track, pausing at places of significance such as next to the shot put circle.
“The response of the community was overwhelming, absolutely overwhelming,” said his brother. “But very welcoming and comforting.”
A wake for Gray was held Jan. 10 at the Barry J. Farrell Funeral Home in Holyoke from 3 to 7 p.m. The line for viewing wrapped through the entire downstairs of the funeral home and then outside and into the parking lot. The funeral was Jan. 11 at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Holyoke, where Gray and his family worshipped.
Every member of the rowing team attended either the wake or the funeral, according to Cronin.
Gray is survived by his parents, Douglas and Cynthia of Holyoke, brothers Robert of Seattle, Wash., and Mackenzie of Holyoke, and by his girlfriend of ten months, Emily Puffer.
“He was a great kid,” said Cronin. “He will be severely missed.”
Katie Landeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.