EVANSVILLE — Despite the many awful things associated with cancer, the first thing Ian Barron noticed when he saw his friend Sam Featherstone after his pediatric brain cancer diagnosis was his hair loss.
Featherstone, who was diagnosed with medulloblastoma — a form of brain cancer — in September 2009, died Wednesday after battling pediatric brain cancer for more than three years. He was 19.
The Newburgh resident had graduated in May from Evansville’s Memorial High School where he was one of the class of 2012’s valedictorians. And on Thursday night, hardly a seat in Memorial’s auditorium was empty as family, friends and classmates gathered to celebrate Featherstone’s life.
Through tears, sniffles and laughs, people from throughout the room walked to the podium to share stories of Featherstone and how he had impacted their lives.
Barron, 18, kept everyone laughing as he shared his story. The two had attended St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Newburgh together, and Barron said in seventh and eighth grade they often had “lengthy, heartfelt debates about whose hair was better.”
Barron said he didn’t have the fancy haircut, but his argument was baby soft hair, “which is weird for a dude.” He said Sam believed his feathery hair was better. The two never came to an agreement.
“I always kind of imagine heaven as a sort of beachy setting,” Barron said. “So I picture him lounging on those short, long lounge chairs with an umbrella drink just chilling under an umbrella. And he has this majestic, not Fabio-esque, but I imagine his hair. But he doesn’t go swimming, he doesn’t want to mess it up.”
Featherstone had undergone surgeries and chemotherapy treatments at St. Jude Children’s Hospital and was attending Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis on a full scholarship with aspirations to become a pediatric oncologist. However, he had been home since fall when tests showed the cancer had returned and he was out of treatment options.
But Featherstone’s determination to conquer pediatric brain cancer has seen more than $200,000 raised over the past few weeks through a silent auction to benefit St. Jude that he organized in November with the help of family and friends. He also organized “SamStrong: Search for the Cure” to raise awareness of pediatric brain tumors and to raise money for research.
Baron Stevens, 19, stood in front of the crowd and recalled a memory of Featherstone from their senior prom at Memorial. The two used to joke about people their age using the term swag, a common catchphrase of someone looking “cool.” Stevens said they found it ridiculous.
“It’s that word that makes you cringe,” he said.
Instead of going out to eat for prom that year, a group of students went to Featherstone’s house for dinner. Stevens showed up in his white tuxedo, white top hat and cane. He told the crowd when Featherstone saw him, he asked, “Is that a cane? Is that a top hat? Can I try it on?”
“I shouldn’t have been surprised because everyone asked to try it on,” Stevens said. “He put it on and sarcastically said, ‘So this is what swag feels like.'”
The Rev. Alex Zenthoefer, Memorial’s chaplain, offered to everyone an image that he holds in his mind of Featherstone, an image of a young man who lived, a young man who was willing to give everything.
“In these last days, he worked so hard for the good of children that he will never meet,” Zenthoefer said. “It should make us wonder, really, it makes me wonder, what am I doing with the gifts that I have been given? You and I are blessed to have known such a tremendous young man who imitated Christ so beautifully by giving of himself and working for others.”