Final Impressions

Charlie, the angel

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Written by James Combs

Remembering a dear friend who passed away from heart disease.

No 13-year-old boy should have to place a final phone call to a childhood friend. At that age, we believe death is reserved for elderly people. 

But I had to call. My buddy, Charlie Stopher, was dying of congenital heart failure. We hadn’t seen each other in about three years because my family moved from Kentucky to Florida, but time and geography couldn’t shake our strong bond. During the two-hour conversation, we talked about our beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats. We shared funny memories that occurred on Mosswood Lane, the street where both our families lived. We laughed.

Then we hung up. I would never hear Charlie’s voice or see his big smile ever again. 

He passed away 30 years ago this month at age 14. 

Thinking back, that phone conversation is a constant reminder of why Charlie was so cherished by his family members, friends, and classmates alike. Here he was on the brink of death, yet his indomitable spirit was still intact. 

There was never a hint of sadness in his voice, never any mention of his impending death, and never a final “goodbye.” It was classic Charlie, a young boy who time and time again displayed grit, bravery, and resilience. He never let his illness define him. 

An avid sports fan, Charlie dreamed—like most young boys do—of playing quarterback on a football team. Unfortunately, his medical condition made that dream impossible. Those who didn’t know him well may have only seen a boy who walked with a limp, had chest scars from numerous heart surgeries, talked with slurred speech, and became winded quite easily. 

But those close to him looked beyond his illness and right into his beautiful soul. He may have been disabled physically, but he certainly wasn’t disabled in spirit. He played T-ball for his school, and whenever the neighborhood kids gathered for a game of football or hide-and-go-seek, Charlie was right there in the mix. He also was a social butterfly who had quite the crush on Christa Birchler, one of the prettiest girls in our class. The smooth-talking Charlie had some game because Christa would come to his home on occasion. 

That twinkle in his big, blue eyes and that endless smile showed how this young boy was brimming with personality, pride, ambition, love, and empathy. No disability could steal those qualities away from him. 

Looking back, I don’t think Charlie felt like he existed to inspire other people. He just wanted to fit in with the rest of the kids. But you couldn’t help to admire him as he went through each day with determination and strength, making you secretly wonder if you could do the same in his condition. In fact, one of our mutual friends, Jason O’Coin, paid the ultimate tribute to Charlie by naming his daughter after him. 

All of us should reflect on how disabled people deal with life. They maintain happiness and resolve despite being dealt a bad hand. For that reason, they should be the benchmark for humanity itself. 

People like Charlie truly are the best of us all. 

About the author

James Combs

Akers Media Group's James Combs has been a staff writer for several local publications since August 2000. He has had the privilege of interviewing some of Lake County’s many fascinating residents—from innovative business owners to heroic war veterans—and bringing their stories to life. A resident of Lake County since 1986, James recently embarked on a journey to lead a healthier lifestyle. He has lost 60 pounds and walks nearly five miles a day. In his spare time, he enjoys target shooting, skeet shooting and watching his beloved Kentucky Wildcats!

1 Comment

  • As Charlie’s sister, I couldn’t have said it better myself. He was the happiest kid you’d ever meet. Quality of life isn’t measured by abilities or success, its measured by happiness. Love & enjoy those around you. Life changes in the blink of an eye. Be a great friend, a great sibling, a great parent & be nice to those you pass & don’t even know. Life is too short for anything else!

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