By John Burton
Red Bank Regional High School is a community in pain, as its members struggle to come to terms with the sudden loss of a well-loved student.
“Grief has no limits,” observed Suzanne Keller, program coordinator of the School Based Youth Service Program, at the high school, 101 Ridge Road, Little Silver, as she works with the community to deal with this loss.
The program, commonly known as The Source, has seen more than 70 of the high school students coming forward to seek counseling following the sudden death of Albert Edward Martin Jr. The lone senior on the varsity team, Martin collapsed Dec. 3 during a team scrimmage and died.
“This was a safe haven for them,” Keller said of the program, as its five full-time counselors addressed the grief students were experiencing over the loss of Martin, who many considered a best friend. His personality crossed many socioeconomic and cultural boundaries among the school’s diverse population.
That outpouring continues as students maintain their efforts to raise money to help Martin’s family with the funeral expenses and to honor his memory, said Marianne Kligman, the school’s information officer.
Schoolmates have established a small memorial at Martin’s locker; they have written their reflections on a large canvas placed in the school’s common area (which will be given to Martin’s mother); and Martin’s basketball jersey number, 34, will be retired during the first home game on Monday, Dec. 17, Kligman said.
“I tell kids this was a tragedy for our school,” Keller says she tells those coming to the Source for support, and addresses what they are feeling.
There was a sense of profound loss, grief, sadness and tears from the crowd that filled the First Presbyterian Church of Red Bank, also known as Tower Hill Church, at Martin’s Dec. 8 funeral. There also were fond remembrances and smiles and even some laughter as they said goodbye to their friend, known to just about everyone who came in contact with the 6-foot 5-inch student as “Biggie.
Hundreds of people crammed into the church, 255 Harding Road, for the viewing and service, with fellow students, family, friends and school and local elected officials on hand to share their grief and memories of the young man.
In a voice wavering with emotion, Red Bank Regional Principal Risa Clay read Maya Angelou’s “When Great Trees Fall,” making that connection to Martin, whom she called “a gentle giant.”
Martin had the ability to cross racial and socioeconomic lines and “touch hundreds of lives,” in his community and the diverse one that populates the regional high school, she said.
“Some of us are angry and some are shocked,” at having lost him, she said. “But all of our lives are better for,” having known Martin.
David Prown is a Red Bank business owner with a longstanding history of involvement in helping area youth, was introduced as a mentor to Martin. Prown recalled meeting Albert when the boy was in fifth grade and was playing first base on a local baseball league.
“He was bigger than the umpire,” even at that young age, Prown remembered.
Prown recalled Martin’s favorite question to him over the years: “Mr. Prown, do you want to get something to eat?” he would ask, usually wanting to go to Burger King. Prown also talked of taking Albert to see a production at the Two River Theater. “The moment the theater went dark, Albert went to sleep,” Prown said, adding it wasn’t long after that Martin began to snore – loudly.
Prown’s comments caused the congregation to chuckle and Prown asked them to “close your eyes and think of your favorite Albert memory and open your eyes and see the smiles around you.”
Scott Martin, Albert’s basketball coach said, “This week at the high school was one of the most painful times of my life,” … there was “so much hurt, so much pain.
“But, there is also something beautiful,” in the way he touched many lives across so many cultural lines and could even disarm the coach or teachers who were irked over some infraction. “He didn’t even have to try … he just did it,” the coach said, with his own voice quivering.
“He had this smile,” remembered fellow student Garrett Sickels, “He had this quality of reassurance.”
Sickels said he knew Martin since the two were 6-year-olds and became close friends over the course of their lives. They and others would regularly go to a local Chinese buffet restaurant – because it could appease Martin’s large appetite, Sickels said.
After Martin’s death, teammates went to the restaurant where Sickels said he opened the fortune cookie that read: “Every down hill has an uphill” and among the lucky numbers was 34 – Albert’s team number and his lucky one.
“It was Albert’s way of saying he’s OK,” Sickels assured the mourners.
After the funeral, the crowd and family climbed into waiting cars, while others milled around in front of the church. Ishier Lawrence, a 17-year-old Red Bank resident, loosened his dark tie and looked at the hearse preparing to depart.
“He was like a brother,” Lawrence said, explaining Martin and he would hang out together, playing Xbox and would go to Elsie’s Subs in Red Bank regularly.
“Albert put other people ahead of him. He was a good soul,” Lawrence said before stepping away to read a text on his cellphone. “It was hard to see him go, he had such a bright future ahead of him.”