By Walter Elliott
WEST ORANGE - Those in and outside of West Orange paused here at its high school June 11 to hold a memorial for Christopher Jordan Lynn Morgan that came far too soon.
Those who filled WOHS's Superintendent Jerry Tarnoff Gymnasium long before its 7 p.m. memorial start received programs whose cover featured a smiling Morgan, 22, in his West Point cadet uniform.
The capacity audience of around 1,000 found themselves looking at a wrestling mat at the center of the gym's floor. Set atop the mat were a pair of wrestling shoes and ear covers
West Orange Public Schools Athletic Director Ronald Bligh, in the company of respective high school and West Point wrestling coaches Stephen Zichella and Kevin Ward - explained the tradition of a wrestler leaving behind the shoes after his or her last match.
They came far and wide to measure the quality of their loss in Morgan in terms of his record, his following tradition and his smile.
Morgan, WOHS Class of 2015, who was killed on his way to a U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. training exercise June 6, was an outstanding scholar-athlete.
As a WOHS Mountaineer wrestler, Morgan qualified for the NJSIAA State Championships in his junior year, reaching the Round of 12. The two-year team captain backed that up in his senior year by winning 42 season and tournament matches in the 182-lbs. class.
Morgan's wrestling accomplishments alone included district and regional titles, making the NJSIAA All Super Essex Conference First Team and the Essex County Tournament's Most Outstanding Wrestler.
The Mountaineers football co-captain also played the trombone in the school's symphony, band and wind ensemble. He graduated as second lieutenant cadet in the school's Air Force JROTC.
The above was part of a resume that helped prompt the USMA to send him a letter of appointment in 2016 - the first African American from WOHS to receive one and the first Mountaineer in at least recent memory.
Morgan first came to West Point for a year in its preparatory school and basic training before getting the appointment. He continued wrestling for the U.S. Army Black Knights, to a 28-22 2016-19 record while taking interest in political science, foreign affairs and global economy. The law and legal studies major had said that he would either become a career officer or work in homeland security.
"When I entered the gym, it was easy to find CJ," said Ward. "I just had to listen to who was laughing the loudest. Or maybe he was showing off the latest dance moves - he loved to dance.
All of the foregoing could have been said of Morgan - of Chicago.
Christopher Sr. and Alice Morgan moved "C.J.," brother Colin and daughters Chase and Cameron from the Windy City to here in 2011. They enrolled their children in WOPS - C.J. and Colin to Edison and Liberty middle schools.
"You don't get to pick your children," said Morgan, Sr. "Chris was the perfect kid. He made me a better father and person."
"They know the risk," said Alice Morgan. "They signed up to serve their country and training's a part of that. We know that we, as West Pointer moms, have to understand that."
"The Morgans moving here was the best thing that happened to West Orange," said Zichella. "Several (NCAA Division One) schools expressed interest in C.J. but his heart was with wrestling and serving his country. He blessed us by showing how to live our lives"
Morgan, was among 19 other cadets and two Army officers in a light medium tactical vehicle on their way to the academy's Camp Natural Bridge in nearby Highlands, six miles southwest of West Point, that Thursday morning.
Morgan and the other Class of 2020 cadets were going to take a map reading exercise as part of their land navigation course.
The two Army soldiers, part of a training unit from Ft. Benning, Ga., were in the LMTV's cab.
West Point and New York State officials are trying to find what caused the 2.5 ton truck to roll upside down at 6:45 a.m. on the dirt road to the camp near State Route 293. They were driving on hilly terrain.
All 23 people aboard suffered injury.
USMA Superintendent Lt. Gen Darryll A. Williams and Keller Army Community Hospital Col. Brett H. Venable said that Thursday afternoon that 22 of the injuries ranged from facial abrasions to a broken arm. They were allowed to stand down the next 24 hours for access to chaplains and grief counselors.
Arriving medics had two of the injured airlifted. They declared one cadet - later to be identified as Morgan - as dead at the scene by 11 a.m. He was to have graduated next year as Second Lieutenant.
USMA public information spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Ophardt said an accident investigation team from Ft. Rucker, Ala. will arrive "to do a safety assessment and answer a lot of questions about speed, curve, number of people in the vehicle."
The accident came the same day as members of the Allied Nations recalled another occasion of service and sacrifice - the 75th anniversary of their invasion of France's Normandy Beach. That invasion turned World War Two's tide of battle against the Axis forces in the European Theater.
"So sorry to hear the terrible accident involving our GREAT West Point Cadets," tweeted President Donald J. Trump from observances there. "We mourn the loss of life and pray for the injured. God Bless them ALL!"
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New Rochelle) has asked his states OEM to provide any resources to assist West Point.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D-Rumson) ordered all U.S. and state flags be lowered to half-staff throughout June 11.
"By all accounts, he was a standout in every regard," said Murphy June 7. "West Point holds a special place as the crucible in which our nation's heroes are forged. It's Tammy and I's sincere hope that C.J."s legacy and memory will inspire others to reach for something greater than themselves and seek a life of duty, honor and service to our country.
The two-hour ceremony, which opened with a bagpiper leading a military color guard into the gym, will be the closest thing to a public funeral for C.J. Morgan. West Point cadets had held a vigil on their 20 acre campus June 7.
A gofundme.com campaign for the Morgan family's funeral expenses has raised $57,000 as of noon June 12.
Those who mourn the passing of "CJ" may take comfort in one legacy he had trailblazed.
Andrei Rosu, WOHS Class of 2017, is in West Point now. Two more - Vanessa Lettman and Colin Morgan - have received letters of appointment four months ahead of their graduation later this month.
"To follow in my brother's footsteps was not made four days ago, said Colin Morgan, who is also a WOHS wrestler. "It was made years ago. I intend to complete what he has started."
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