Home Local News Former student memorialized at Richmond Senior

Former student memorialized at Richmond Senior

Jonathan Hernandez, a former student who died of cancer at the age of 23, has a plaque, bench and tree on campus dedicated to his memory. See more photos below.
William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

ROCKINGHAM — One former student will be forever remembered with a memorial tree, plaque and bench at Richmond Senior High School.

Family, friends and former educators gathered to dedicate the space in Webb Park in memory of Jonathan Hernandez, who died at the age of 23 following an eight-year battle with cancer.

The event marked the third anniversary of his death.

“When I’m looking down at his picture over here, it brings back memories — of a beautiful soul, a beautiful smile, a beautiful spirit,” said current Superintendent Jeff Maples.

“We all have children, most of us here, so we know … this is very difficult for us all to deal with, especially for you guys,” Maples continued, addressing his parents, Diana Janica and Pablo Hernandez.

The family moved from their native Colombia in 2007. Within a month, his mother was hired as a Spanish teacher at the high school.

“They just fell in love with the community and the community fell in love with them,” said former principal Corey Satterfield.

Jonathan was diagnosed with metastatic osteosarcoma at the age of 15.

But instead of going through modern treatment like chemotherapy, he opted for a more natural approach of healthy eating as advanced by the San Diego, California-based Gerson Institute.

According to its website:

“The Gerson mission is anchored in the education of food as medicine, reducing toxic exposure and creating a healthier world where the Gerson Therapy is not just a viable option, but a pillar of treating chronic illness. By supporting organizations with missions surrounding food access, food education, regenerative farming, soil health and toxin-free households, we are engaging in solutions to the very issues that impact people who come to Gerson to get better.”

The Gerson Institute paid for a red maple, which was planted in the fall of 2019, as well as a plaque with Jonathan’s name, photo and Bible verse from Phillippians 4:13.

By the accounts of those gathered, Jonathan was a man of faith.

Satterfield said two words come to mind when he thinks of Jonathan: faith and love.

Satterfield said Jonthan had faith in God and faith in being healed.

“He loved people,” Satterfield continued. “Every time you talked to Jonathan, there was nothing but a smile and happiness on his face — even after he got sick — it was the same Jonathan.”

Satterfield added that Jonathan loved the school.

“He was so proud to wear that band uniform,” Satterfield said, adding that it was “a blessing” to know Jonthan and his family, “and just help them through the things that they were going through.”

Satterfield then recalled that Janica’s visa was about to expire when her son got sick.

“At the end of a visa, you’re supposed to go back home,” he said, remembering pleading with the administration to help keep the family in Richmond County.

“When I see Diana all the time, we’re always hugging, and she’s always thanking me, like I did something for her and her family,” Maples said. “But I should thank you guys for what you did, because you guys enriched my life by me knowing Jonathan and just the battle he went through and the way he handled it … I think he accepted it as this was God’s will, so be it.

“He gave it his best shot, did some treatment that was a little bit different … and this will be a place where we drive by, we can remember him.”

Janica said her son had always wanted to be a pilot, but later changed his mind and had planned to be a missionary physician. She credited recently retired biology teacher Leah Melvin for his decision.


“I always tried to encourage him and tell him, ‘You’ll make a great doctor,’” recalled Dr. Robert Beck, former associate superintendent.

Beck also recited the Joyce Kilmer poem “Trees.”

Jonathan was supposed to graduate in 2013, but his progress was delayed until 2015 because of his cancer treatment.

Other speakers included family friend Carolyn Ford, who also read a letter from Roberdel Baptist Church Pastor Billy Dennis, Ellerbe First Baptist Church Pastor Jim Brown, and current Richmond Senior Principal Jim Butler.

Janica said “little drops of love” started at the high school and several churches before spreading throughout the county. The family also received prayers and support from across the state, nation and world.

“At the end, it was a story of love,” Janica said, “and there’s a lot to give in this county.”

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Managing Editor William R. Toler is an award-winning writer and photographer with experience in print, television and online media.