Many of us, including this writer, were in church on Sunday morning, April 8, when we first prayed for Jake Wilson, and the volunteers who were searching the Wolf Creek area in La Porte City for the autistic teen who had been last seen walking toward the creek the previous night.
The entire area rallied around Jake’s family, the LPC community, first responders and the many volunteers who spent hours searching for Jake. Ribbons, signs and a community vigil helped spread the word and encourage everyone to keep looking.
At Union High School, where Jake would have been a junior in a few days, the students wore blue, the gym class had a “Jakey” workout, and teachers and students have been sharing Jake stories.
“I was lucky enough to teach Jake during his freshman year and the first trimester of his sophomore year,” says Jared Pospisil. “In that time I got to know Jake as a fun, very inquisitive student, one who loved to listen to and write stories. Jake would get wrapped up in the characters of various novels and short stories, asking questions about them weeks or months after we had finished reading them.”
Jake’s writing was particularly memorable, says the teacher.
“Jake always looked forward to our free-write days in language arts class,” says Popsisil. “I’d set the timer for 15 minutes, and his pencil would start flying in his notebook. When it came time to share stories, I often found myself leaning forward in my chair in anticipation because Jake’s stories are a roller coaster, filled with twists and turns, interesting characters, and vibrant imagery. I’ve commented to people that listening to one of Jake’s stories is like reading a Walt Whitman poem: by the end, the audience is exhausted by the sheer volume of detail flying at them, yet thoroughly entertained.”
Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson was among the leaders in the search, and among those who felt the weight of Jake’s disappearance and the ultimate outcome the most. After announcing the tragic news at a news conference, Sheriff Thompson said:
“Now that the press conference is over and the emotional outburst has had a chance to settle, I sit this morning reflecting on all that has happened in the Jake Wilson case. I am so appreciative of the support and I am humbled by everyone’s hard work. For our outstanding partnerships both in law enforcement, emergency management, and the fire discipline… I feel so incredibly bad for both sides of this family. I feel like we let them down by not finding this evidence sooner and I know these four months have been agonizing. I pray that we have answers sooner than later and we can bring both conclusion and peace to all in this case. It’s no secret that this has taken both an emotional and physical toll on me as well. But my ills pale in comparison to this family. We will do all we can to bring the answers we all seek and won’t rest until we are able to responsibly close this case.”
As we sort through our grief as members of Jake’s family, school body, or community, there are a few things that I hope will become part of Jake’s legacy, both for those who knew and loved him best and for those of us who only learned his name after April 7.
Just exactly what is, or should be, Jake’s legacy? I am sure you will hear more about it from those who knew and loved him best in the near future.
But for now, here are a few things I hope anyone who wore blue or put up a ribbon or lit a candle or said a prayer or walked the creek — and all of you who read a story or saw a newscast about all of those efforts to help bring Jake home — will remember.
First of all, and most important: Realize the indescribable contributions these “special needs” persons make to our lives, our schools, our communities.
“They may not be able to do some of the things we can do, but they can also do many, many things we can’t even dream of being capable of doing,” said one father of a Special Olympian. “They are unpretentious, honest, open and very caring people. They probably won’t ever lie because it would never occur to them to do so. They care about you as an individual and ask nothing more in return.”
Imagine that: Kids with what we consider “learning disabilities” who have a capacity for the most important kind of knowledge; a sincere, innocent understanding of loving life and loving people that exceeds that of many of their peers.
Second: Welcome the challenge of caring for them. When a complicated, difficult situation arises, our response should not be, “Oh, no, not again.” Instead, we should say, “It’s about time for me to learn something more about loving this person, and learning to love others in the way they need.”
That same father, praising the response of his son’s classmates, said: “We have always been grateful, overwhelmed at times, over the way he’s been accepted by the community, the schools and most of all, his peers. He can be a handful at times, but he is considered part of the ‘team’ and it is genuine.”
And third: Let’s try harder to tell their stories. Share their struggles. Celebrate their triumphs. Laugh and cry with them, and their loved ones.
And finally (for now): Let’s learn from them. Take in everything you can from seeing their smiles, watching their attitudes, and accepting their unconventional yet unconditional love.
Someday soon, we will officially, formally, say good-bye to Jake Wilson.
But right now, let’s promise to let the light and life and love you see in that smile of that boy holding that big fish live on forever, and guide how we treat all of the other Jakes we ever meet.