HAVERHILL, Mass. — Joshua Bonnell had big hopes for his future.
A senior at Haverhill High School, the 17-year-old met with Principal Bernard Nangle the day before Thanksgiving to ask him for a letter of recommendation to Maine Maritime Academy, which Joshua hoped to attend.
Nangle was eager to grant Joshua’s request because he made a good impression on Nangle, especially during the boy’s freshman and sophomore years when he volunteered to help build stage sets for school plays.
“He was pretty handy with a hammer and was always willing to lend a hand,” Nangle said. “He helped construct a lot of theatrical sets. He could do it all.”
Yesterday, Nangle had to write a different kind of letter. It was one he could not have imagined last Wednesday when a bright young man came into his office to talk about his hopes and dreams. This letter was a follow-up to one he sent to staff on Saturday after learning that Joshua died in a car crash on Friday. His 15-year-old brother Austin Bonnell, a freshman at Haverhill High, was seriously injured in the crash, officials said.
“The Haverhill High School community is deeply saddened by the tragedy that befell the family of Josh and Austin Bonnell,” Nangle said in an email to staff yesterday morning. “We are stunned by the loss of Josh, as he was a bright and witty teenager who brought joy into a room with his warm and friendly ways.”
The death has shaken the local school community, from the high school to Tilton Elementary School, which Joshua attended years ago and where his parents did volunteer work.
Nangle said that when Joshua met with him last Wednesday, he seemed very upbeat about the possibility of attending Maine Maritime Academy.
Nangle told staff members that Austin, who is recovering from his serious injuries, is a freshman who seemed to be fitting in nicely to the surroundings at the high school.
“He has a large group of friends here who are hoping for a speedy recovery,” Nangle said. “Words cannot begin to express our sorrow for the family. They will be in our thoughts and prayers here at the high school.”
During his morning announcements yesterday, Nangle informed students about the tragedy and told them grief counselors would be available to talk with them.
“Quite a few kids sought out counselors, and we will offer this as long as it is needed,” Nangle said yesterday.
Nangle said many Haverhill High students who knew Joshua had already been talking about his death on Facebook and Twitter.
Nangle said Joshua had been attending the night school program while working during the day and that he was doing very well in the program, putting him on track to graduate in the spring.
“He was a good kid, a happy kid and an above-average student,” Nangle said.
Joshua was killed late Friday night when the car he was driving slammed into a tree at a high rate of speed. His brother Austin suffered two broken legs and a concussion in the single-car accident at 11 p.m. Friday in Naples, Maine, about 25 miles north of Portland, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office said.
Monday, Austin was reported to be in satisfactory condition at a Maine hospital. Officials said he was partially ejected from the car but had to be extricated. He was flown to the Maine Medical Center in Portland by helicopter.
Joshua was pronounced dead at the scene, police said. Austin was wearing a seat belt, police said, but his brother was not. Police believe speed, but not alcohol, was a factor in the crash.
Joshua was active in student theater at Haverhill High and also was an outdoor enthusiast. His Facebook page features a squirrel sitting on his shoulder and also includes photos of him splitting wood, paddling a kayak and riding ATVs and snowmobiles.
Retired Tilton Elementary School Principal Raymond Sierpina, who was Joshua’s principal, said he heard about the death on Sunday while he and his wife were driving back from a Thanksgiving family gathering in Kentucky.
“When I heard his name I was in shock,” Sierpina said. “I can still see him delivering the attendance sheet from [teacher] Kerri Alves’ room to the front office, always with a smile on his face.”
“He was a nice, hard-working and smart kid who came from a great and intelligent family,” Sierpina said. “Last year we went to Laschi’s [a garden center on Route 97 in Methuen] to pick up some Christmas greenery and Josh was working there. He was talking to us about his family place in Naples [Maine] and how they enjoy going up there. He was smiling and he was happy.
“I feel a terrible loss for the family,” Sierpina said. “As a parent, how do you handle such a tragedy?”
Sierpina said Joshua’s parents, Susan and Gary Bonnell, were very active in the Tilton School community and were involved in the parent-teacher organization and Site Council. Sierpina said the Bonnell family helped make Mother’s Day special for hundreds of children at Tilton.
In 2005, Austin was a first grader. Joshua had graduated from Tilton the year before. Their parents, who at the time operated Bonnell’s Flowers, donated 1,250 impatien “plugs” — two starter plants for each child at the school — as well as enough soil to plant them in.
The Haverhill Garden Club chipped in with stacks of 3-inch pots and volunteers, who helped children plant the flowers as Mothers Day gifts. Susan Bonnell had done similar gardening projects in her children’s classrooms the previous four years.
“I decided to get together with the Garden Club this year and do the project for the whole school,” Susan Bonnell said that first year.
The following year, the Bonnells donated 1,400 impatiens plugs to the project. Susan Bonnell’s mother, Joan Pechnik, was the Garden Club’s incoming president that year.
Tilton teacher Kerri Alves had both the Bonnell boys in her third grade classes.
“Josh had a very upbeat personality,” Alves said. “He was kind, he was funny, and he was a sweet kid. Words can’t describe what kind of a loss this is.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services