It was 10:30 a.m. on a school day during exam week, but well over half of the mourners who packed St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Fairfax last Thursday were high school students. Ten or so solemn teenage boys bore the casket of 16-year-old Christopher Kearns to the pulpit as Mass began.
Kearns, a junior at Oakton High School, died in a car wreck the evening of Saturday, Oct. 28, when the car in which he was riding struck a parked vehicle on Miller Heights Road in Oakton. The driver, a 17-year-old classmate, has been charged with driving while intoxicated.
During the ceremony, Kearns' stepfather, Richard Lopez, recalled memories of the boy he had helped raise, from a time when his brother Zach, now 18, did most of his talking for him, to recent months, by which time Kearns had developed a wise-cracking sense of humor and a bent for pushing the limits of authority.
Lopez remembered when his stepson was suspended from daycare for repeatedly biting a classmate, whom his parents later learned had been taking away Kearns' toys. Later, when Kearns was in sixth grade, Lopez and his wife, Sheree, were alerted that their son was holding hands and kissing on the playground. "We thought that was a step up from biting," he said.
Throughout his school years, Kearns had been a strong student, said Lopez, noting, "He whined because his mom wouldn't let him get away with a B when he could have gotten an A."
ALSO A GIFTED ATHLETE, he swam well, said Lopez, but his real passion was for lacrosse, which he played at Oakton. Lopez noted that Kearns had dropped five seconds from his 50-meter breaststroke time last year, although he thought this was likely due to lacrosse training. "The only reason he swam last year was so Zach could have a decent relay team," he said.
Kearns was a dedicated lacrosse player, and often spent hours practicing by himself when he was not practicing with the team, said Lopez. "He was a beautiful athlete, and it was fun to watch him when he didn't know we were watching," he said. He also recalled Kearns attending every lacrosse practice through nearly an entire season while he was out of commission with a broken collarbone.
"He loved everything about the game, but, most of all, he loved his teammates," said Lopez. "I think he also loved to hear his mother shout the loudest," he said, recalling his wife's enthusiasm during her son's lacrosse games. However, at the sports games of Kearns' siblings, he said, it was Kearns who cheered the loudest.
He also described Kearns' disarming sense of humor. "He used to say he was going to come home after college and move back in and let me and Sheree live in the basement," he said. When his mother lectured him out of concern, said Lopez, Kearns would finally break into a grin and tell her, "I'll be fine. Get over it."
"Well, that's impossible now," he said. "We had this talk with him many times, and in the end, it didn't do any good," said Lopez, urging the many teenagers present to take a lesson from Kearns' death. "Don't waste a precious opportunity," he implored.
FOLLOWING THE BURIAL at Fairfax Memorial Park, mourners made their way back to the Lopez residence on Brecknock Street. Many of Kearns' friends and family members said they were not yet ready to talk about him, but a few of his closest high school friends related their memories.
"Basically, he just loved to have fun," said sophomore Kenny Hanson. "He was always having fun."
"He liked living on the edge. He packed a lot of life into a short time," said David Shumway.
James McClellan said he had been acquainted with Kearns for a number of years through lacrosse but had become close friends with him after transferring to Oakton at the beginning of the last school year. "We became friends really quickly. He was just that kind of kid," said McClellan. "He was always looking for somewhere to hang out," he added, noting that Kearns sometimes sought out other schools' parties.
"He just loved being around people," said Hanson.
McClellan noted that Kearns had been best friends with the classmate who had been driving at the time of the accident, and who was in attendance at the reception. "They did everything together," said McClellan.
He also pointed out that Kearns had a knack for more than just sports and having a good time. "He was really smart. He was in all the AP classes," he said.
David Kidwell, another of Kearns' friends, looked surprised. "He was?"
"He had like a 3.8 [grade point average]," McClellan responded.
"He didn't get good grades because he stayed home studying all night," Hanson clarified, explaining that Kearns' grades were the result of native intelligence and an ability to balance his activities.
As for college plans, McClellan said Kearns had had plenty of options but was waiting to see if he got any offers for lacrosse scholarships. This would have been his first year playing varsity, but last year, on the junior varsity team, he was voted the most valuable offensive player, said McClellan.
Hanson noted that Kearns was remarkably close not only with his older brother, who was close to his age, but also with his younger brother, Tommy, who is 10. "I don't think I've seen someone hang out so much with a little brother who was that much younger," he said.
One thing Kearns did not appreciate, for reasons that were never fully understood, said Hanson, was his car. "He seemed to blame everything on his car, no matter what the situation was," he laughed. He recalled an occasion when, as the group was pulling up to Glory Days, one of Kearns' friends accidentally bumped into him. Kearns was on foot, and the friend was driving a car. After lifting himself from the pavement, said Hanson, Kearns walked directly to his own parked car, swore at it and kicked it.
Kearns' friends all agreed that he had an infectious smile that would not soon be forgotten by his classmates. "He was friends with everybody — every group of kids," said Hanson.
The Monday following the accident, said McClellan, Kearns' death was felt throughout the school. "Our football team didn't even want to play," he said of that night's game, which Oakton lost.
Hanson estimated that perhaps three-quarters of the school's student body had attended Kearns' memorial Sunday, Oct. 29. "We all loved him," he said.