Thursday was supposed to be a special day for Semaj Johnson and his family.
The 17-year-old rising senior at Beaufort High School was expected to report to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, sign his post-graduation enlistment papers and officially embark on the road toward becoming a Marine.
Those papers went unsigned.
“We are sure he would have been an exceptional Marine,” said Capt. Barry Morris, spokesman for the 6th Recruiting District. “This was a young man who aspired to do something greater than himself and serve his country. Unfortunately, he will not have that opportunity.”
Johnson spent Wednesday afternoon, the last of his life, swimming with three friends in a pond in the Telfair subdivision in the Ardmore Avenue area on Lady’s Island.
Witnesses told authorities the four teens were swimming across the pond at about 3:30 p.m. when Johnson began to fall behind. He struggled but went under before his friends could reach him. His body was recovered by the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office Dive Team.
Funeral arrangements still were being finalized Thursday, but a public memorial is scheduled for noon Tuesday in the gymnasium at Beaufort High, assistant principal Nicole Holloman said.
Johnson was a doer at Beaufort High School, where he ran track, was a part of the Junior ROTC program and played on the Eagles’ junior varsity football team as a wide receiver and defensive back, according to school officials.
At an off-season weight-training session Thursday morning, football coach Mark Clifford broke the news of Johnson’s death to his teammates.
Some of them, such as rising senior Zach Brown, already knew.
“I think we’re all just taken aback by the situation,” Brown said. “You never think this can happen to someone you know or one of your teammates. It was hard to know what to say. (Semaj) was one of those kids that everyone liked and was just a best friend to everybody. He always lit up whatever room he was in.”
Clifford said Johnson also was respected by coaches.
“He was just a bright-eyed, outgoing youngster who everyone loved and always had a smile on his face,” Clifford said. “It’s like I told our guys: No matter how bad you feel about this, your hearts and prayers have to go out to Semaj’s family.”
Johnson’s classmates and administrators spoke in similarly glowing terms.
Lanie Humphreys, another senior-to-be, called him “one of the most spirited people you (could) ever know.”
“He was so funny and could change your day if you (were having) a bad one,” she said.
Holloman, the assistant principal, said Johnson never failed to impress administrators with his willingness to help and encourage others.
“He had this older generation’s sense of chivalry,” she said. “Even if I was only holding a cup of coffee and was fumbling with my keys, he’d say, ‘Ms. Holloman, let me hold that for you.’ That’s just not something you see that much anymore.”
School administrators found themselves in an all-too familiar and difficult position Thursday, dispatching guidance counselors, social workers and other mental health professionals to help students cope with Johnson’s death.
He is the third Beaufort High student to die tragically in as many months.
An April 21 car crash on St. Helena claimed the lives of senior Chelsie Teddie Nicole Pitruzzella and sophomore Kayleeana Hudson-Banks.
Holloman said the deaths have been difficult for students and staff.
“As teachers, you have to be strong for the students even though you may be hurting,” she said. “We’ve just tried to tell the students that it’s OK to grieve and (that) there is no proper way to grieve. It’s OK to feel upset or confused or angry. In some way, these deaths have forced our students to confront their own mortality.”
Teammate Brown said those who knew Johnson will honor his memory by the way they live.
“It’s hard to move on, but it’s the best that we can do,” he said. “These students were members of our family at the school, and they would have wanted us to move forward and look ahead.”