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Jack's Got Our Back

Updated: Sep 8, 2019

by SYDNEY CLIFFORD - One year since his passing, the Westfield community celebrates the life and legacy of Jack Kelleher.

Jack (top row, second on left) with other Viper Aquatics swimmers at a club swim meet. photo courtesy of LAUREN TODD

WESTFIELD, Ind. (Jan. 17, 2019) - Teammate. Classmate. Student. Friend. Brother. Son. These are just a few words that describe Jack Kelleher, who lost his battle with cancer one year ago today. As friends and family of this remarkable young man reflect on his life today, individuals around Westfield recall the impact that he had on their life.

“Jack was a goofball,” former teammate Emma Yoakum (12) said. “He was such a fighter. He was smart and really personable and just a friendly kid.”

Yoakum swam with Jack during her Sophomore year, when Jack was a Freshman . While he only swam for one year at the high school level, swimming was a big part of his life. Even when he was younger, he could be found in any sort of pool.

.“I knew Jack as a club swimmer and as a neighborhood swimmer,” former high school and club head coach Kyle Messmore said. “Because I lived in the same neighborhood. If I have one thing in my memory that will always stand out about Jack, it will be Jack as a little Village Farms swimmer.

Jack’s involvement in Viper Aquatics, now Westfield Aquatics, and the Village Farms swim teams brought him into the lives of countless people. From neighbors to club swimmers, Jack had an impact on whoever came into his life.

“I’ve been friends with Jack for a long time,” close friend Emerson Bostic (10) said. “He lived in my neighborhood, and we met each other on the neighborhood swim team. Every summer we would hang out a lot, and we were really good friends.”

As Jack grew older, he came to Westfield High School and joined the swim team his Freshman year. Former teammates remembered that his toughness and determination, mingled with positivity, had an impact on the atmosphere of practices.

“Jack was always out there,” former teammate Jacob Roberts (11) said. “He liked a good challenge. He’d always do everything with his best of effort. He really brought team spirit to the team, a lot. You never saw him not smiling. Even on the really tough sets, he’d still be smiling. He’d just be doing it for fun. It’d raise all of our attitude for the sport.”

As the swim season went on, Jack started getting headaches. They continued for days and got to a point where he had to take frequent breaks during sets during practices. Regardless, he kept pushing himself until they got to a point where he ended up going the doctor. There, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. This diagnosis was a shock to many.

“I remember the day [he was diagnosed],” Mr. Messmore said. “He had been having headaches really bad at practice, but he had never left practice. He’d always gutted it out. His doctor told him that he had to be the first person to have been completing four hours of workouts per day and been diagnosed with a brain tumor. He was a tough kid, and he did not let what had happened to him slow him down.”

Once he was diagnosed, Jack was unable to complete his Freshman year as a swimmer. But this did not stop him from cheering his team on. He was able to smile with his teammates after they had won the Boys JV Conference Meet, a feat Westfield had never accomplished. While he loved to see the accomplishments of his friends, Jack wanted to do the same with them. Former assistant coach Justin Mull saw this yearn to swim again.

Jack (far left) with swim teammates at the 2017 JV Conference Meet. photo courtesy of CONNIE SIMPSON

“[There was this] consistency of ‘Oh I want to get back in the pool. I want to get back in the pool,’ ” Mr. Mull said. “Every time I saw him, even in the hallway at school, it was always, ‘I want to get back in the pool.’ I felt like that gave a lot of example and a lot of leadership, lead by example to everyone else. If anyone on the team thinks about it for even a few seconds, you can have some admiration and model yourself like, ‘If he can fight to get back in the pool, I can fight for this. Because whatever I’m fighting, he’s fighting harder.’”

Jack’s example extended beyond swimming. For his close friend Emerson Bostic, Jack’s strength and battle gave him inspiration to do something remarkable with the Westfield Boys’ Cross Country team.

“When [his cancer] started getting really bad, I thought it would be a good idea before the conference meet to make ribbons in support of him because it seemed like he needed extra support in the battle he was going through,” Bostic said. “So my mom and I went to a crafting store and bought ribbons and put pins on them. I told the team about Jack, and they were in support of him. So he came. It really made him happy that all these kids who he had no idea who they were were running for him.”

In order to do this, however, Bostic had to get approval from the IHSAA to put the pins on the jerseys. He first had to talk to his coach, and then to the athletic department. From there, Athletic Director Mr. Bill Davis and Assistant Athletic Director Mr. Andy Tebbe had to submit a request to the IHSAA.

“We’re always proud of our kids and our teams when they want to honor people and causes,” Mr. Davis said. “We’re just happy to help make that happen in whatever way we can. It’s part of what we and our coaches try to do with our kids: to be servants and to have a heart for those types of things.”

“Our part is pretty easy, just to help get the approval,” Mr. Tebbe said. “But it’s really cool and really neat to see a team come together in support of that cause.”

Support for Jack came from everywhere, from the swim team to the cross country team to his classmates and beyond. So many had rallied behind him during his battle with cancer. But nobody expected to hear Dr. Stacy McGuire, principal of Westfield High School, come over the PA system during second period to report that Jack had passed after his thirteen-month battle. Shell-shocked, friends and teammates congregated in the Learning Center of the high school, mourning this unbelievable truth. Everyone gathered to support one another.

“The day that we found out that Jack had passed,” Mr. Mull said, “I immediately got covered for my room so that I could be out of my room and down [in the Learning Center] with all the swimmers. Eventually, I realized that I didn’t need to be down there for them because they were all there for each other. I think that Jack had such a unifying ability with all the team and they were all there for each other. I felt like I had gone down there to support them and let them know that I was there for them, and then it was like, ‘They’ve got this.’ ”

During this time together, swimmers not only thought about the passing of their former teammate but also about their meet against Avon that night. Jacob Roberts did not want to keep the two events separate. He insisted that, no matter what, he was going to swim breaststroke for Jack.

“Jack’s favorite stroke was breaststroke,” Roberts said. “It was what he was best at, and he’d always be swimming that whenever he was swimming. I was sitting in the learning center all day and just thought, ‘Hey, we have this meet tonight. Why don’t we do his favorite stroke in honor of him?’ I think the team really needed a little bit of inspiration. We really needed to get together, as a team. We’re more than just a team, we’re a family. We’ve got each other’s backs.”

In the end, Roberts was not the only person who swam breaststroke that night. The last event of the night, the 400 freestyle relay, became a 400 breaststroke relay. Both teams, Avon and Westfield, swam breaststroke instead of freestyle to honor Jack. As tears or smiles or both could be seen on the faces of those on the pool deck, the hearts of everyone who saw this feat, including Westfield head coach Darrick Thomas, were filled with the same compassion that the Westfield athletes had for their former teammate and friend.

“It was the greatest example of sportsmanship and what’s best about sports that I have ever seen,” Mr. Thomas said. “And I’ve been coaching for over 25 years.”

Even after his initial passing and funeral, the memory of Jack did not leave anyone’s mind. For Westfield’s Dance Marathon, a charity organization for Riley Children’s Hospital where Jack was a patient, part of the night was dedicated to honoring him. They also had the phrase “We dance for Jack” on the back of each of their t-shirts. For Dance Marathon Executive Committee member Kendall Wilkes, Jack gave her even more drive to make a difference in the lives of the kids at Riley.

“I think it just made Dance Marathon a more personal experience for me,” Wilkes said. “Because I had someone’s face to match with different Riley stories. I had heard about all the great things Riley does with kids I personally didn’t know. Having someone that I knew was a patient at Riley made it really significant.”

But this action of honoring Jack was not exclusive to just the night of Dance Marathon. The club and high school swim teams had Jack’s name or a ribbon on each of their team shirts. A scholarship was started in his name, called Jack’s Got Your Back, helping high school seniors pay off the cost of going to college. Another significant event was when the swim team got together to donate 64 blankets in Jack’s name to Blankets for Joe.

“Blankets for Joe was started by another student at Westfield,” Emma Yoakum said. “Her grandfather passed away, and her family started donating blankets in memory of him to hospitals, specifically to families in the waiting area with their loved ones to just comfort them and keep them warm.”

Members of the Westfield High School swim team with 64 blanket donations to Blankets for Joe. photo courtesy of LAUREN TODD

While Jack left this world a year ago today, those who knew him would say he is still living on. His determination has inspired many in everyday battles. His positivity has shown that there is still joy amidst the incredible odds the world puts against it. His care for others has impacted lives, beyond what he was able to do in his life.

The memory of Jack Kelleher lives on. In his friends. In his family. In his teammates. In every heart that Jack has touched, Jack is there.

Author’s Note

Before writing this, I really only knew of Jack. In contrast, I now feel like I’ve met him.

This is one of the most peculiar things that I have ever encountered in the process of investigating, interviewing and writing. I have gotten glimpses, flickers, sparks of who Jack was, the impact he had on the people around him and where he can still be found now. The words and memories of others have given me a window where I can see the friend, brother, son, athlete, teammate and classmate who has gone before us.

When Jack was alive, I met him once.

I joined the swim team my Sophomore year, so I was not around when Jack was battling through headaches and when he received his diagnosis. However, I did know through friends in youth group that he was battling a brain tumor, and that he was well prayed for.

During the cross country season of my Sophomore year, I saw the Boys’ Cross Country Team honor him with gray ribbons on their jerseys. I was able to wear one of these ribbons at the Homecoming Dance.

I ended up meeting Jack at the Dance Marathon swim meet. He was standing at the end of lane one, watching the swimmers go by. He didn’t seem to mind the splashes of water, and it seemed like he was still on the team, as if nothing had changed. Having mutual friends, I introduced myself to him, and he answered back, very soft spoken. He was very polite.

I wish I was able to say that there was more than that one experience with Jack while he was alive.

When we learned that Jack had passed, I couldn’t believe it. Life couldn’t just end like this. My mind screamed at God, “Why? How could you do this?” I scrambled to hold all of my friends together as they were falling apart.

Through the entire experience of Jack’s passing, I caught specks and traces of who he was. Simple memories. While simple, these memories offered me the glimpse I needed.

Time passed. Winter turned to spring, and I swapped a pool for a track. Spring turned to summer and fall, and I swapped a track for a cross country course. And once cross country ended, I dove back into the pool. As swim season began once again, Jack’s memory remained. When we donated 64 blankets to Blankets for Joe in his name, the idea for this article came about. I did not want this extraordinary individual to be forgotten.

Throughout the process of interviewing and writing, I wasn’t just putting together a story. I was meeting Jack. I saw this teammate. I saw this athlete. I saw this friend. He gave these people bits and pieces of him, and I was meeting parts of Jack that he had left behind.

Yes, when he was alive, I only met Jack once. How I wish that I had more time to meet him. How I wish he was still here. But given the circumstances, I cannot be anymore thankful for what I have gained in the process of writing this. I cannot be anymore grateful that I found the residual sparks left behind.

Here’s to you, Jack. I began writing this to honor you, but you gave me something even greater in return. Thank you for letting me meet you.

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