OXFORD, Maine — Josh Wardwell had a dream of building and flying his own plane.
He spent hours in the garage at his School House Road home putting together pieces from a RagWing experimental glider kit his grandfather bought for him. He earned money mowing neighbors’ lawns to buy missing pieces.
That dream was never realized, but the 17-year-old Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School senior who died Wednesday after falling through thin ice on Chapman Pond in Oxford left a profound impact on others.
“We lost a star,” said Capt. Mary Story-King of the 77th Composite Squadron Maine Wing of the Civil Air Patrol based in Auburn, where Wardwell served as cadet commander several years ago.
Wardwell, who lived with his mother Stephanie, father Eric and an older sister, was in the woods near his home in the Welchville section of Oxford about 30 minutes after school let out when the accident occurred. He had been to the pond, which is accessed by an old, largely unused, road just last week to check beaver traps. The ice was much thicker then, Oxford fire Chief Scott Hunter said.
This week, after several days of 50-degree weather, the ice was too thin. Wardwell fell through. His girlfriend, a 15-year-old Oxford Hills student, called for help from the shoreline. She was wet but not injured when responders arrived, Hunter said. Two Oxford Fire Department firefighters wearing cold-water rescue gear jumped into the pond, but it was too late. Wardwell was pronounced dead at Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway late Wednesday afternoon.
“It is indeed a sad day in Oxford Hills,” Superintendent Rick Colpitts said Thursday, speaking on behalf of the Oxford Hills School District. “Obviously, our hearts and prayers are with Josh’s family and friends at this time.”
Colpitts and Principal Ted Moccia said it was a tough day for students and staff.
“Everyone liked him,” Moccia said of the young man who loved the outdoors, hunting, trapping and his pickup truck.“He was a great kid, always smiling.”
The high school brought in additional counselors to be with the students and staff, and several small-group and individual sessions were held for students requesting opportunities to talk, he said. “Staff were provided with the details, as known to us, so that they could respond honestly and appropriately with the facts if questioned by students,” Colpitts said.
A few parents stopped at the school to lend support, he said.
Wardwell was a student in the Automotive Tech 3 program, in which the class was a tight-knit group of friends. His teacher, Julian Lefebvre, was a close family friend, Moccia said.
But the young man’s circle of friends went well beyond those in the class and and even those of his age.
He was a friend not only to many students but to many teachers, Moccia said. “He made a lot of positive connections with adults in the building, too.”
Wardwell’s absence “has left a significant hole,” Colpitts said.
Story-King said Josh left the Civil Air Patrol cadet program to concentrate on other interests a few years ago but still kept in touch with many in the program.
He had arrived at the squadron as a middle school student with shoulder-length hair. He cut it the next week and rose quickly in rank from airman to cadet commander, Story-King said. He was one of the program’s most promising cadets, she said.
And though he was never able to complete his own experimental plane to fly, Story-King said he flew many times with the Civil Air Patrol and just last year went up in an experimental plane.
Story-King said she spoke with Wardwell’s father, Eric, on Thursday and told him the Civil Air Patrol was sending a uniformed contingent to the funeral service.
“Once you belong to the Civil Air Patrol, you’re always family,” she said.
Wardwell’s mother once told the Sun Journal that she would often look out the window of her house and see her son in the garage, sitting in the cockpit of the partially built plane pretending he was in the air.