Hearts were heavy at Adairsville High School Monday as students, teachers and staff members mourned the loss of one of their own.
Larry Gardner Jr., 17, of Adairsville was killed Saturday morning when a Dodge Durango driven by 31-year-old Nixon Sellers, also of Adairsville, struck him from behind while he was walking along Old Highway 41 near Manning Mill Road, according to Georgia State Patrol.
The AHS senior and drummer in the Marching Tiger Band was on his way to school, where the marching band was preparing to leave for its last competition of the season in Carrollton, according to the Bartow County School System. The trip was immediately canceled.
“This morning has been pretty emotional for our students and our staff,” Adairsville Principal Bruce Mulkey said Monday. “Any time you lose a classmate, it obviously takes a toll, but losing a Larry Gardner is devastating. It’s impossible to describe how many people Larry influenced in the AHS community, and they’re all hurting this morning.”
Guidance counselors and ministers were on hand to help students cope with the loss of their classmate.
State troopers responded to the accident at 7:34 a.m. Saturday, and a preliminary investigation determined that the Durango and Gardner both were traveling south and that the SUV had hit the student from the rear with its front left bumper, according to GSP.
When the Bartow County Emergency Medical Services crew arrived, they found the teenager “with no signs of life,” and he was pronounced dead at the scene, EMS spokesman Brad Cothran said.
It has not yet been determined if Gardner was walking in the roadway or on the shoulder, but the GSP specialized collision reconstruction team is conducting a follow-up investigation.
Charges against the driver are pending, according to GSP.
Members of Gardner’s family, including his parents, Larry Sr. and Shuntee Gardner, visited AHS Monday morning to meet with members of the band and senior class to “talk about ways to celebrate Larry,” Mulkey said.
“With all that they’re dealing with — the loss of their eldest son and continuing to support their other seven children — it’s inspirational to me that they took the time to visit with Larry’s band family to offer words of encouragement and support,” he said. “It’s very apparent to me where Larry Jr. got his passion and servant-first attitude from. They spent over an hour listening to Larry’s classmates share their favorite story or their favorite memory — a lot of tears and a lot of laughter. I know [the students will] do a great job of showing everyone how much Larry meant to them and how much they’re going to miss him.”
Mulkey said the teenager, who was an honors and Advanced Placement student, had an “unbelievable spirit.”
“He had such a huge personality, a lot of passion and a genuine care for everyone else,” he said. “His classmates would tell you that he was extremely funny and that he could be the center of attention but also knew how to include everyone and make them feel like they were the most important person in the room.”
Gardner was a standout member of the drumline and was known as “the soul of the Adairsville High School marching band.”
“Meeting Larry when he was in seventh grade was a memorable experience,” AHS Band Director Dr. Kerry Bryant said in a press release. “His talent, even at such a young age, was remarkable, better than most adults. In my 29 years of experience, you don’t meet too many kids like that. His work ethic was second to none, and he had a tremendous sense of humor that made him a popular student inside and outside of the band program.”
Mulkey said he feels “pretty confident” that the school will have some kind of memorial service one night this week.
“One of his parents’ primary concerns was that all of Larry’s classmates have a chance to attend because that’s the way he would have wanted it,” he said. “As I said, he never wanted anyone to feel left out.”
Matthew Wright was one of those people Gardner didn’t want to leave out.
Wright, who was a sophomore when he met the freshman Gardner, said Gardner was the “God-sent friend” for which he had been praying.
“One day while at home, I prayed and asked the Lord for some good, godly friends to go through high school with, friends I could encourage and lift up and who would encourage me and lift me up when I needed it because it can be so hard to maintain your integrity when you feel like you’re going to war every day alone,” he said.
“About a week later, at school, I was sitting at a lunch table by myself, and I had just finished praying and giving thanks for my food. I looked up, and there was Larry. He and others invited me over to sit at their table with them.”
Wright, who graduated from AHS in May, said he and Gardner would “go back and forth, talking about music and good Christian songs, about how our day was going, laugh a little and just be together.”
“I’ll always remember him bobbing his head to soul-filled music while playing invisible drums, always ready to listen and give a word of encouragement,” he said. “I could say he really was the ‘up beat’ to the school. I know, without a doubt, that if he could say anything to us today, he’d tell us to ‘keep going, man! Don’t give up, trust in God. Don’t give up on your dreams.’ I miss him a lot, and it’s a shock to me ... but even though I know he’s gone, I also know he’s not dead, and that some joyful day after a while, I will see him again.”
A GoFundMe account has been established to help Gardner’s family, and as of Monday night, $1,550 had been raised, exceeding the goal of $1,000.
A fund also has been set up at Northside Bank in Adairsville to help the family, according to the school system.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete at press time.