Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 2, 2013

TC West student 3rd to drown at park since '10

BY ANGIE JACKSON ajackson@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Owen Williamson’s friends said he could’ve been a star on Saturday Night Live.

He seemed to be on his way. Owen, 17, earned lead roles singing and acting in productions at Traverse City West Senior High, where he was a junior. He remained as humble in his major role as the Beast in the music department’s spring production of “Beauty and the Beast” as he was as a freshman with a small solo in “Phantom of the Opera.”

“He knew that he was talented, but that drove him to take more risks — acting or singing risks,” said fellow West student Hannah Will, 18, who sang with Owen in Chorale and Choral-Aires, a group recognized this year as the top Youth Art Festival ensemble choice. “He strived to just be a better performer.”

Friends and others recalled Owen on Saturday, a day after he drowned while swimming with choir friends at Twin Lakes Park in Grand Traverse County’s Long Lake Township. Owen was the third person to drown at the lake since 2010.

Owen and about 10 others stopped at the park off Long Lake Road on Friday around 4 p.m. for a quick dip before a graduation party. The majority of the group swam from the main beach to another beach area, while a few others and Owen, who was not a strong swimmer, stayed behind in the water where they could stand, Will said.

The swimmers walked back on a trail when a friend called out that Owen was nowhere to be found.

“I assumed they had their backs turned for a brief moment and turned around and he wasn’t there anymore,” Will said.

A friend swam out and found Owen, then pulled him to the surface, but he was already unconscious, Will said. Grand Traverse sheriff’s deputies and Long Lake Township firefighters reached him with an inflatable boat and rope and attempted to revive him at the shore. He was sent to Munson Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

“We did everything we could,” said Long Lake Township Battalion Chief John Brown.

Brown said a cold and deep underground stream near where Owen waded, about 50 feet offshore, claimed the lives of two other swimmers in 2010 and 2011.

West Choral Director Russ Larimer watched Owen blossom from a somewhat shy freshman to a leader among his peers. He had major roles in the music department’s three productions this year, which included the jester in the annual Madrigal Feaste and multiple characters in “Spamalot.”

“He was a real natural on stage,” Larimer said of Owen, who sang tenor and bass.

Will said Owen recently talked about consulting his voice teacher on whether he should pursue a music career.

Theater instructor Kristie Bach said Owen sometimes had a comedic cameo instead of a lead role, and he was happy to handle any part.

“He thought of himself as a comedic actor, but he played everything from a villain to the Beast in ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ He was a very versatile actor,” Bach said.

Owen did everything with purpose and above all, he made others laugh, Will said.

He grew out his facial hair for the school’s Novembeard competition until the Choral-Aires’ secret Santa party. Owen surprised the group when he gave his shaved beard in a plastic bag as a gift, prompting “tears of laughter,” Will said.

West Senior High School Principal Joe Tibaldi said he doesn’t come across many students who are well-respected and talented in academics, music and theater.

“He’s liked by a wide range of kids. People just describe him as a gentle, kind soul,” Tibaldi said.

The school will hold a moment of silence during graduation today and Monday at school. Senior and Chorale co-president Susanna Oakley, 18, said the choir’s performance at graduation won’t be the same without Owen.

“I stood in front of him (at rehearsal) yesterday. That’s the last time I heard him sing, and that’s what keeps ringing in my mind,” Oakley said Saturday. “He had such a great voice, and it’s powerful but at the same time really good to listen to.”

Counselors and students joined Friday after the drowning at a parent’s house. Tibaldi said grief counselors will be available next week. Owen has an eighth-grade brother at West Middle School, Tibaldi said.

Students, including graduated seniors, will honor Owen Monday by wearing superhero T-shirts to school.

“He wanted to be a superhero,” Will said.

Visitation for Owen will be held on Wednesday, June 5, from 4-8 p.m. at the Reynolds-Jonkhoff Funeral Home. A funeral service will be held on Thursday, June 6, at the Presbyterian Church at 701 Westminster Road in Traverse City at 11 a.m.