Jonathan Andrew Curling was born in Utah and lived in 13 places over the next 16 years. Although he attended Heritage High School in only the second semester of his sophomore year, the teen who died in a July accident left a lasting impact here.
Monday, Nov. 15, members of the HHS cross country team planted a Japanese maple on campus in memory of him, and Thursday, Nov. 18, they ran a 5K in his honor around the Davis Acres neighborhood on what would have been his 17th birthday.
Before the run his mother, Joanna, offered the teens Jonathan’s favorite snack, fruit gummies, and standing in a light rain his father, Timothy, announced the family will be starting a scholarship for HHS track or cross country members.
Timothy Curling’s career with the U.S. Marine Corps took his wife and four sons to multiple locations, but with his retirement planned for May 2022 they were looking to settle by the Great Smoky Mountains, with Curling’s mother nearby in Knoxville and their oldest son at the University of Tennessee. The pandemic pushed them to move to Tennessee sooner, because with California schools closed, the boys couldn’t participate in sports.
The family settled in Blount County in January, just in time for Jonathan to run track.
With his shoulder-length blonde hair and the way he carried himself, Jonathan looked like a California kid to classmates at HHS. He told them his name was Philmore, though. In fact, the night of the prom friend John Vance didn’t know whom Joanna Curling was talking about when she said Jon needed to be home by 11 p.m.
When the family lived in California, she said, her youngest son tried to get people to call him Apollo, after the Greek god and character in Rick Riordan novels. She said Philmore came from the “Cars” movie character of Filmore, a VW mini bus.
Everyone who knew him by any name, however, knew his laugh. Even if what he said wasn’t funny, the sound of his laughter alone would have others join in. “His laugh made you laugh,” said Edith Mejia, who ran track and went to prom with him.
He also loved writing stories. When playing Dungeons and Dragons with his three big brothers, Anthony, Peter and Theodore, Jon would be the dungeon master. “He loved to create worlds and go on adventures in person,” Joanna Curling said.
He had planned to transfer to West High School because it offered an International Baccalaureate program. He wanted to teach English in Japan and write stories, his mother said. The teen on his own had studied three systems of writing Japanese, his father said.
In July his parents traveled to California for surgery on Timothy’s heel. The evening of July 26, Joanna said they talked with Jon and Theo over FaceTime and said prayers, expecting to see them the next day.
Shortly after 10 p.m., Jonathan Curling was riding a skateboard in the middle of Coulter Road and was struck by car traveling in the same direction, according to a witness account in a report from the Blount County Sheriff’s Office. The teen was pronounced dead at the scene, and no charges were filed against the driver.
Timothy said his son had been reluctant to drive after a car accident a couple of days earlier, and that’s why he was skating that night.
HHS Principal Jed West said Jonathan “had a tremendous positive impact on people.”
“Not many people can make that big an impact in a short amount of time,” Coach Alex Morgan said, noting that Jonathan made people smile and feel included.
John Vance called his friend charismatic and said Philmore treated everyone with respect.
The cross country team decided to plant a Japanese maple in his memory, because of the teen’s love of Japanese culture. On Monday, Nov. 15, they planted the tree behind the soccer field, by a white bridge where seniors traditionally write their names. For the cross country team, the area is known as the place of their final sendoff, the coach explained.
Jonathan started running during his freshman year of high school, while the family was living in Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf. “The first week he hated it,” Timothy Curling said, because practice started at 5 a.m. and the temperature would hit 110 degrees. By the end of the season he was named the most improved runner.
At Heritage Jonathan usually ran the 1,600 meter race and sometimes the 3,200. He wanted to break the 5-minute mile. “It was just that drive in him to excel,” the father said. When he finished at 5:04, he cut his hair.
Jon spent the last few months of his life planning adventures with friends and swimming. “It was the best summer he ever had,” Timothy Curling said.
On what would have been their youngest son’s 17th birthday, the Curlings invited his teammates into their home after the 5K for ice cream.
Joanna Curling said that knowing her son accepted Jesus at a young age gives her heart peace.
Grinning photos of Jonathan with friends and family fill multiple poster boards at the Curlings’ home, and his mother points to a quote at the bottom of one that she is remembering in the family’s time of grief. “Maybe it’s not about the happy ending. Maybe it’s about the story.”