Teen's legacy lives on: Anniversary of death offers lessons

Today, April 22, is the one-year anniversary of the death of his son, Jashun Montez “Peedy” Johnson, an 18-year-old West Point High senior who was one month from graduation when he died in a traffic accident in Lowndes County
Staff Writer

Jermaine Johnson knows a parent’s pride in a child who has begun to earn the admiration of others. He also understands the nightmare of having that child snatched away just as he is beginning to blossom into a young man.

Jermaine Johnson is caught in that cycle of joy and grief, one struggling to overcome the other.

Today, April 22, is the one-year anniversary of the death of his son, Jashun Montez “Peedy” Johnson, an 18-year-old West Point High senior who was one month from graduation when he died in a traffic accident in Lowndes County.

“People still come up to me and say what a great young man he was, people I don’t even know. That’s what I try to hang on to, not the night of that call, not the hours and days afterward,” the father says.

In today's society, many hear about the death of a teenager and automatically think something bad.

That wasn't the case with Peedy. He had taken his sister to Skate Zone in Columbus to celebrate her 14th birthday. While she was hanging out with friends, "Peedy" and his 16-year-old cousin went to see a friend of his who lived near Columbus Air Force Base.

His sister had called and said she was ready to go so Peedy and his cousin were headed back to pick her up.

It was about 11 p.m. on that Saturday.

For some reason, as they drove along Highway 373, Peedy lost control of the 2007 Ford Fusion his mother had given him.

The car left the road, struck a driveway crossing, and started flipping. Peedy was thrown from the car.

He died there.

"The car started shaking ... he told his cousin he loved her, that's what she remembers," Jermaine Johnson recalls of what the family has been told of those few moments.

At Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle, relatives were relieved to learn one was OK. Doctors did not have the same good news about Peedy.

"He told me and I didn't want to tell everyone inside the hospital, I didn't want everyone to break down right there. I took them outside. We just cried," he remembers, glancing away as if seeing it all over again.
The next night, as many as 500 students and adults, friends and strangers, showed up at Zuber Park to pay tribute to the high school basketball point guard who loved the park's courts. Many said that was his second home.

"He'd gotten better than me. I didn't like to tell him that, but he had," the 37-year-old father admits.

"We loved basketball. I still play out there. I see myself in him, seeing him doing the things I didn't do or couldn't do. He looked like me, people tell me that all the time. That makes it even harder, the toll. I lived my life through him, watching him," he continues when a visitor compares pictures of the two.

Peedy was on a mission. West Point High principal Jermaine Taylor talked about it at that candlelight vigil, about how the young man often stopped in his office to talk about his future.

Just days before the tragedy, Peedy went to Memphis and met with a U.S. Marine Corps recruiter. He'd signed up and was looking forward to the next opportunity in his young life.

When he came home and told his father, he glowed about going to Japan and other places like that. As his father talked about that conversation, a warmth washed across his face.

"I couldn't do things like that because of my seizures," laments Jermaine Johnson, who suffered from epilepsy.

"I told him to go for it. He didn't let things hold him back. I told him I would visit him there. It was an inspiration that he wanted to serve his country. I like to think it inspired others. I think about it all the time...I hear something about Japan or something reminds me, I think about him."

A month after the accident and his funeral, his classmates kept an empty chair with his cap and gown among them on the floor of MSU's Humphrey Coliseum.

"I can still hear the ovation. I look back now and I still feel the respect and the love. It makes me know I had a good son. I am still so proud of him. It was just his time, God needed a point guard on his team," Jermaine Johnson says.

The Clarion-Ledger called out his name at a ceremony remembering athletes who'd been lost during the year.

The grieving process -- not letting the mourning consume him -- has offered the father some lessons.

"I've been learning to never judge what God does. What he does, he does for a reason."

That's better now than in the weeks after the tragedy.

"I tried my best to make my way through it. It hit me every single minute of every day. Why does this happen? It was hard for me, real hard. I was angry sometimes," he admits.

He still wears it on his sleeve. And his co-workers at MGD in Verona where he's been for 11 years notice it sometimes and offer words of comfort and encouragement. The same for Domino's in West Point where he works on weekends.

"People know you are still going through that moment," he says appreciatively.

When the weight gets too heavy, he picks up pen and paper and writes down his feelings. Sometimes he goes to family property in the country to be alone with his thoughts.

One of those poems, entitled "Greatness," starts off, "Greatness is the name of a son." It talks about the impact that son had on others. In a Biblical sense, one lost son mirrors another.

The accident's anniversary also is a reminder.

"I tell young kids all the time that you never expect things to happen, you never know when your time is going to come. Death doesn't have an age limit. They need to be careful, be safe. I tell my other kids and their friends to be thankful everyday.

"Peedy wasn't even doing anything, not any of the bad stuff you hear about. You expect them to be burying you, not you burying them," the father advises.

As he lives with the first anniversary, it makes him even more watchful. Another son, Jacories Hammond, is 18 and graduating this year from West Point. Every day dad has a subtle fear lurking in the back of his mind every time the phone rings.

"You can't help it," he admits.

This morning, Jermaine plans a visit to his son's grave in West Point city cemetery just off Church Hill Road. The number 24, Peedy's basketball jersey number, still stands in a wreath beside the head stone, which carries a picture of the smiling teen.

"I will tell him how many people still miss him, the community, his family, his friends. Tell him that he was a model for many. I want him to know he will never be forgotten."

He also will go to Highway 373 and put up a cross on the spot where his son died.

"I would give my life right now to have his back. But I am learning to live in the joy, the memories. I know that one day I will see him again, I just pray for that."