In loving memory of Bowen Johnson, Berkeley High class of 2015

Bowen Johnson, Berkeley High graduate, died on Oct. 13 from Leukemia. Photo: courtesy of the Berkeley High Jacket

The Berkeley High Jacket published a series of letters last week memorializing 2015 graduate Bowen Johnson, who died on Oct. 13 after fighting leukemia for two years. He was 20. The letters, written by friends, family members and teachers, describe a playful, warm and sports-obsessed young man who was beloved in his community. We have republished the letters with the Jacket’s permission.

From Jesse Barber, Fiona McLeod and Elijah Williams:

Bowen Kader Johnson passed away on October 13, 2017. He attended Malcolm X Elementary, Willard Middle, and Berkeley High, graduating from Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS) in 2015. Bowen was a beloved son and brother, a fiercely loving friend, and he will be missed dearly for the love he brought to his family, friends and anyone who was lucky enough to have him in their lives.

Bowen fought leukemia for two years, and for two years he met unexplainable pain and uncertainty for the future with nothing but bravery and grace. He approached it with the same love of life that he had all along, cracking jokes and smiling in the face of an altogether unimaginable set of circumstances. His remarkable strength and never-ending courage were unbelievable, yet undeniable.

An avid fan of the Warriors, Giants and 49ers, Bowen also loved playing baseball and basketball. We spent hours tossing a ball back in forth, just being together. His capacity to remember lyrics was matched only by his ability to use those lyrics in hilarious situations. With Bowen, the simple moments were often the most special. The enthusiasm with which he threw himself at life was enough to make anybody want to see the world the way he saw it.

Bowen was at the same time ever-present – enjoying the little things in life like Gordos, Pano(ramic), and Starbursts (except the yellow ones) – and thoughtful, always curious and inquisitive. He would slow down and ask things like, “What would you give for the Warriors to win five championships in a row?” Three weeks ago, he turned and said, “I mean, I could say I need more in my life than a fish taco, but I just don’t.” He was straightforward yet pensive, blunt yet musing.

Forever the jokester, Bowen was notoriously sarcastic, always the one who was ready to have a good time and not afraid to tell you if you were being “burnt.” As anybody who has ever been on the receiving end of one of his eye rolls can tell you, that moment of embarrassment was always worth it, since it meant you got to see the sneaky smile hiding behind it all. In his presence, the scale and magnitude of the events at hand were skewed, ever towards positivity and lightheartedness.

Bowen was a warmhearted and adored classmate, CASmate, and friend. His genuine smile and beloved personality made him exceptional at connecting with the people around him. He treated everyone with a profound warmth and respect that could be immediately felt and was instantly addictive. Interacting with him was like finding yourself in a place that you did not know you belonged until right then. The astounding size of the community that surrounded Bowen is a testament to the magnetism with which he drew people in.

In times of such profound grief, words often feel insufficient. There are no words that we know how to say to adequately express the magnitude of the loss we feel in the wake of Bowen´s passing. At the same time, there will never be enough words to express the gratitude we feel for Bowen and for the years of friendship and love which we were so lucky to have shared with him.

The power of a love like the one Bowen inspired in us is two-sided, as the ferocity with which we loved him makes it that much more difficult to comprehend a world without him. We will always remember the lessons he’s taught us, about how to be in the moment, about how to breathe, about how to turn to the future with a smile on your face and a joke in your back pocket. He brought so many of together, and it is with that community that we will navigate these next moments of life together, always remembering, forever counting our infinite blessings for having known Bo.

We love you, Bowen, and will never forget the way you touched our lives.

From Lev Gordon-Feierabend, BHS, Bowen’s cousin:

I was in English when I got the text. I was to go to the office to get picked up to see Bowen in the hospital for the last time. At this point his leukemia had already been diagnosed as incurable.  On the car ride to the hospital, I was shocked into reaIity. I knew whatever happened today, I needed to try to remember him. I searched through my brain trying to find a memory to capture him, one memory to account for this gaping hole he was going to leave. I tried to search for something profound and poignant, something that captured how popular and smart and successful he was. Something that would show me how to follow in his footsteps as an athlete and sports writer and personality. I realized that is not Bowen. My mind continued to be drawn to one memory.

It’s of us in his backyard after Camp Kee Tov. He is my counselor.  We’re playing ping pong, hitting the ball back and forth. He is much better than me and I keep lobbing the ball up only for him to slam it hard. One time he spikes it especially hard and it strikes me directly on the nose. The ball had been traveling at a such a velocity that we are sure it would swell up. Bowen tells me that if I am asked about why I have a swollen nose, I should tell them that I was mauled by a bear.

I think I was drawn to this memory not just for the fact that it showed off his athletic prowess (the fact that he was able to hit a harmless ping pong ball so hard that he thought it could be even close to resembling a bear mauling shows just how athletic he is), not just for the fact that it shows his sense of humor, but also because it is astounding that I was there in the first place. For those who don’t know, being a Kee Tov counselor takes up a tremendous amount of time and Bowen was not lacking in friends he could hang out with. The fact that he would spend his precious time with his little cousin playing ping pong is amazing. I think this a tribute to his generosity and acceptance. He always made me happy to be around him and I’m lucky that I got to spend as much time with him as I did. I’m glad he was my cousin.

To say I will miss him is an understatement.

From Hasmig Minassian, Bowen’s teacher:

We are simply crushed by the heartbreak of losing Bowen at such a young age. In class, he was a calming presence full of curiosity and a quick, dry wit that kept us smiling through our days.  In our community, he was a loyal friend, CASmate, and upstanding young man.  He was committed to always becoming a better version of himself with an arm around each friend, bringing them along.  Bowen cared about justice and showed up to make things right when they went wrong.  I’ll never forget his role in a small, powerful circle of CAS Senior young men and women who grappled with harassment, male privilege and misogyny.  He didn’t avoid the messy truths and faced adversity with a wonder.  The world already feels very empty without him, though so much more beautiful for having had him in it. May his spirit rest in power.

Excerpted from Bowen Johnson’s “I Believe” poem, 2013:

“I believe in the power of Friendship.

The 2 out, 3 and 2 pitch that will win or lose the game for you

The extra work you put in to get better at what you love.

The happiness that comes out of winning or achieving a goal.

But what I don’t believe in is quitting just when something gets hard.

I believe in the helping hand.

I believe in living life to the fullest.”

From Dana Moran, Bowen’s teacher:

It’s really hard to put together coherent thoughts right now when I’m mostly overwhelmed with sadness, but I’ll try…

To say that Bowen loved sports is an understatement.  He played competitive baseball until injuries ended his career, but rather than giving up and drowning in his sorrows, he began coaching and working with younger athletes, writing for the sports section of the Jacket, and for his senior internship in CAS, he worked with the Athletic Director at his former middle school (Willard), essentially becoming the assistant Athletic Director there.

Bowen was also an incredibly kind and thoughtful person.  He was easygoing and a loyal friend.  He loved chocolate chip cookies.  We texted sometimes during or after Warrior games.  It’s going to be a long season without him.

From Eli Johnson, former Jacket editor, Bowen’s older brother:

Every room Bowen walked into always got a little bit warmer. From young Kee Tov campers who adored him to the Jacket writers he mentored to his family who cherished every moment spent with him, Bowen touched all of our lives in such meaningful and profound ways.

We grew up playing basketball, ping pong, and eating cheeseburgers. Once he got sick, that morphed into watching TV, playing cards…and still eating cheeseburgers. But even throughout Bowen’s fight with leukemia, he always made sure everyone around him kept their spirits high. Bowen was without a doubt the first pediatric patient that convinced his nurses to set up a game of apple juice beer-pong in the hospital room, or shotgun race his protein shakes.

That is the kind of person he was. Bowen is gone, but will not be forgotten. Our wish is that everyone lives their life with the exuberance and positive energy Bowen lived his.