by Wendy Tokuda
Damon Witts passed away of complications from cancer on July 29, 2011. He was not quite 27 years old, and one of the most remarkable people I've ever known.
I still remember the first time I met him at Fremont High when he was 18 years old, coming toward me with an open face, broad smile and hand outstretched. I could sense immediately, that I was meeting someone special.
Damon had a rare gift- an ability to make real human contact with anyone- no matter what race, or income level. When he talked he spoke from a deep place in his soul, and when he told his story on television, people listened, and responded with an outpouring of support for him and for Students Rising Above. He was raising his 9 year old sister, Lakisha on his own. They were living together in a small studio apartment in east Oakland, scraping by on Social Security Survivor benefits. Their mother was unable to care for them, and their grandfather had passed away. “I want to show her that life is gong to be okay", he said. “that she will make it through this.” He had made a decision early in his life to care for Kisha. It was an altruism that came from his heart, deep and pure.
In his personal statement for college, he wrote: “I believe my inner strength comes from inside,as if a ball of hope whishes to roll my life into a positive direction… or maybe I desire to escape my misery…. Life has always been a struggle." But even at 18, he said the circumstances of his life growing up poor in East Oakland, made him stronger and gave him a greater understanding of life.
Damon was brilliant - a natural student. Damon was seven years old when he decided school was his top priority and he would get himself there on time, on his own. At school, he said, there was light and enlightened teachers. He was referring to light both figuratively and literally, as there was often no electricity at home. His teacher, Catherine Michna at Fremont High told me: he loved coming in to have philosophical conversations with her. She would tell him things about different religions, different philosophies, and they would talk. Then he would go a few doors down to his history teacher and talk with him about it… then go back to Ms. Michna to further this intellectual conversation. There wasn’t any other kid in the school who would do that, she said, just Damon. “His eyes light up when he talks about stuff that he’s read.” she said. When they discussed poetry, he would be listening in total silence, and she would see a look on his face that showed the pure joy of learning. He wanted to be the first in his family to go to college, and he was, studying Architectural Engineering.
But it was something else that teacher said.. that really stuck with me: “He’s got this rare thing inside of him," she said, “I don't know what you call it but it’s the rare thing that makes people great. He has greatness inside of him." I agree. It was his character that ma de him extraordinary, his innate sense of right and wrong and the strength to do that right thing. That is what made his potential so immense, and his early death so tragic.
I caught up with Damon when he was in his sophomore year at Cal. There he was with Kisha, living together in a small apartment near campus. “In her application to get into Saint Mary's College Preparatory High School in Berkeley, Kisha wrote about Damon as the person who most inspired her, saying: “Because he was always been by my side, he always showed me that he cared about me. And for me that really speaks out because he is like my father. Even though I never told him that, I could see that he’s playing the role because he wants my life to better than his, he wants me to go places and never forget that I'm good as anyone else out there.” Indeed she is..and this fall she will enter San Jose State, as a Student Rising Above.
Damon was a proud, independent man who did not like charity. When he developed cancer he didn't want anyone to know. I would usually find out he was in the hospital in roundabout ways. He didn't want to burden anyone and he wanted to handle his treatment in his own way.
I remember one time I visited him in the hospital about a year ago. "Hello friend", he said as I walked into the room. They were such simple words but not the typical ones of a young man his age. That was Damon- authentic, deep and eloquent. His fiance Tram was usually by his side at the hospital, always strong and positive.
Damon died before he could see his first child. Tram is expecting in September. But his words will continue to inspire. When he was 18, he said, “there’s this little strength inside of me. It may seem little but it has to power to want to change everything, and that’s where i find hope inside of me... believing that I will succeed the challenges that I will encounter. That I will change things around me. That I’ll be an inspiration to others… "
Indeed you will, dear Damon. Indeed you will.