Churchill Student Who Died in Bike Crash Remembered as ‘Example of Unconditional Love’

Churchill Student Who Died in Bike Crash Remembered as ‘Example of Unconditional Love’

Hundreds attend memorial service Friday afternoon

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Hundreds gathered Friday afternoon at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac for a memorial service for Jacob Cassell, a rising junior who died last week. A video of Cassell plays on the screen.

Caitlynn Peetz

For nearly three hours Friday afternoon, hundreds who gathered at Winston Churchill High School shared memories of a 17-year-old boy described as “transparently himself,” in turn changing the way others view the world.

Jacob Cassell, the Potomac school’s “bulldog” mascot last school year, was riding his bike on the sidewalk along Old Georgetown Road the afternoon of July 31. He swerved to avoid trash on the sidewalk, fell from his bicycle and was hit by a passing SUV, according to police reports. Cassell died the next day at a local hospital.

On Friday, people who knew Cassell gathered for a “celebration of life,” where they sang Cassell’s favorite worship songs and watched videos of the teen dancing and providing commentary about his day-to-day adventures.

One video shared was recorded on the first day of spring, but it was snowing, much to Cassell’s dismay.

“It’s supposed to be spring, you ding-dong!” Cassell said in the video, in which he explained that he was talking to God. “… I don’t know what will happen when I talk to him that way and I actually say that in Heaven. He’ll probably say, ‘I’m sorry, Jake, but I’m sending you back down.’”

That kind of humor was commonplace for Cassell, and he was often so happy he skipped between classes, former teachers said.

Speakers, including friends, school administrators and classmates, said Cassell, a rising junior, was notorious for giving high-fives that made every day “the best day ever” and frequent hugs. He had a distinct laugh anyone who knew him could pick out from a crowd.

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A memorial for Jacob Cassell on a fence outside of Winston Churchill High School.

“He was one of the absolutely best people I was blessed to meet in my life,” said Brayden Bachlott, a close friend. “He taught me a lot about the world that we all live in. He taught me how to be compassionate, respectful and help everyone out in the best way I possibly could.”

Jacob was born six weeks premature and in the midst of tragedy. His mother, Jennifer, went into labor when a fire broke out at the townhouse adjoined to the family’s. He weighed 5 pounds, 7 ounces, at birth on Oct. 10, 2001.

“Jake came into this world with sirens blaring and he left this world with some sirens, as well,” said Kenny Day, a longtime family friend. “It was a punctuation of extremity on both ends. In between was about 563 million seconds of joy and awesomeness.”

Jacob was diagnosed with autism when he was 1 year old, his father, Steve Cassell, said.

As a slideshow of photos of his son as an infant played behind him, Steve spoke of Jacob and the struggles the diagnosis posed for them both.

At first, Steve said, he was angry. He was disappointed and grieved for his son.

But those feelings quickly subsided and were replaced with love and pride for Jacob, who from a young age exhibited an “unusual joy and happiness.”

“Everything we expected, everything as an alpha male I had hoped and dreamed I would have in my son, not only did I have to learn to put that aside, I had to burn them — completely remove that from my life because it had no place in our home,” Steve Cassell said. “I arrived at parenthood deeply scarred. … Jake fundamentally rewired me. He rewired the way I think. He rewired my heart. He is the greatest blessing a father could have.”

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Jacob Cassell

As he grew up, Jacob took an interest in public transportation, roller coasters, dancing, theater, Boy Scouts and his religion.

He was close to obtaining his Eagle Scout badge, an honor less than 2% of Boy Scouts achieve, his troop leader, Mike Schecter, said.

He dreamed of graduating high school and college, and of someday being an Amtrak train conductor or a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines.

And sometimes, he struggled.

Jacob was “very human,” his father said. He got angry and responded inappropriately to some situations. But the pair prayed together every night — Jacob demanded it.

About six weeks before his death, Jacob was riding in the car with his mom when he told her he “can’t wait to go be with Jesus,” Steve said.

Jacob’s faith has been a comfort for the family, he said, but it is still a “monumental loss.”

“I had a whole lifetime of trips planned with Jake,” Steve said. “… I dreamed of going everywhere on planet Earth with this kid and it’s a great loss to not have my wingman with me.”

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Jacob Cassell

Jacob’s absence will be felt at Churchill, too, when classes begin next month, Athletic Director Jesse Smith said.

Jacob attended nearly every extracurricular event and wasn’t shy about wearing a bulldog costume as the school’s mascot.

Often, Smith said, teens are reluctant to let their peers know they’re a school mascot, afraid of judgment. But not Jacob.

“Jake just went out there and he wanted to have fun and he wanted to show his support for all of the athletes, fans. He just wanted to be out there with them, celebrating everything that was going on,” Smith said. “He wanted everyone to know he was the bulldog.”

The Cassell family has set up a scholarship fund in Jacob’s name at The Diener School, a small, private school in Potomac for elementary students with special needs. Jacob attended Diener for four years.

The fund is intended to provide money for at least one family each year who could not otherwise afford to enroll their child at the school.

“We have had our son tragically taken from us, but there is redemption in this,” Steve Cassell said. “We believe that although his life was limited to a much-too-short 17 years, that God will use his example of unconditional love and friendship and joy for life and love of God as an example to the rest of us of how we should approach life.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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