Hundreds turn out to remember FGCU student who drowned in campus lake

Claudine Brown, mother of FGCU student Joel Johnson, is embraced by her son's friends during a candlelight vigil in memory of the student on Wednesday, June 28, 2011, on the school's campus in Fort Myers. Johnson died in a drowning incident that occurred early Thursday at the university's campus lake. David Albers/Staff

Photo by DAVID ALBERS // Buy this photo

Claudine Brown, mother of FGCU student Joel Johnson, is embraced by her son's friends during a candlelight vigil in memory of the student on Wednesday, June 28, 2011, on the school's campus in Fort Myers. Johnson died in a drowning incident that occurred early Thursday at the university's campus lake. David Albers/Staff

Joel Johnson/photo submitted by Wes Kirk

Joel Johnson/photo submitted by Wes Kirk

Passionate. Spirited. A big personality with an even bigger heart.

That’s how friends and fellow students described Joel Johnson, a 21-year-old Florida Gulf Coast University English major from Lauderhill, Fla. who drowned last week in a campus lake.

More than 200 gathered in an auditorium on the FGCU campus around 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday night to celebrate his life and time at the school.

A basket of gold and purple ribbons sat outside the auditorium door. Songs like The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony” and Michelle Branch’s “Everywhere” played as the crowd swelled.

The sound of rain falling outside on campus walkways set a somber mood.

“When something like this happens, it happens to all of us,” FGCU President Wilson Bradshaw told the crowd. “Joel left an imprint on this university. The people here tonight are a testament to what he meant to Florida Gulf Coast University.”

The vigil had been planned for the grassy lawn outside the library, but rainy conditions forced mourners inside.

Three poster-sized collages documenting Johnson and his college years served almost as a casket, a viewing area for the grieving.

The evening included lots of hug, lots of tears, and even a few smiles.

The photos show a smiling young man who played guitar and was a fan of Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobie Bryant. He sometimes wore a Milwaukee Brewers hat. He was a skater.

“We saw this big kid go by on a longboard with crutches and I yelled, ‘Hey Joel, is that you,” Caitlin Kelly, 21, a junior, said of Johnson. “He flew by and said, ‘Yeah, how do I stop this thing?’”

People in the crowd laughed for a brief moment, a few seconds before the reality of Johnson’s passing set in again.

Lee County Sheriff’s Office investigators said Johnson and several others tried to swim out to a water trampoline at about 1 a.m. on June 23, on the campus’s north end. In a 911 call, two people on the scene told dispatchers that Johnson had said he could swim, but he went underwater before reaching the trampoline.

Johnson’s body was recovered at 3:16 a.m. by members of the San Carlos Park Fire Department. Toxicology reports were pending to determine whether alcohol was involved in Johnson’s death.

Johnson played intramural sports and enjoyed acting classes. He was a resident assistant at FGCU and an aspiring writer.

Many of the friends and faculty at Wednesday night’s ceremony signed a guest book in Johnson’s name. The book will be available to other students and friends on Friday and Saturday at Eagle’s Landing, a meeting facility near the dormitories and lake.

“Joel is someone that I’ll never forget,” fellow junior Justine Butcher said. “He was such a big part of our lives.”

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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