South Lake school copes with recent drownings of student, parent |

South Lake school copes with recent drownings of student, parent

William Ferchland

Normalcy was making a deliberate comeback Wednesday at St. Theresa Catholic School following the weekend deaths of a popular eighth-grade student and a parent.

Teachers assigned light loads of homework. There were no sudden trips to the nearby church. Occasional laughter was heard.

Yet the differences were there. Michael W. Blank Jr., 14, was not at his desk. His classmates wore stickers with his picture and the words “always and forever.”

Blank was killed Sunday when a rogue wave dragged him into the Pacific on Northern California’s Mendocino coast. Phillip Smith, 56, a parent who dove into the frigid water in an attempt to save Blank and student Johnathan Camello, drowned.

“Monday was very tough,” said seventh-grader Faith Bechtol. “Everyone was crying. I think today we just got started to get into our school routine.”

The St. Theresa eighth-grade basketball team and parent chaperones were visiting the coast after a basketball tournament at Mendocino. All 10 members of the team were splashed by the wave.

The team didn’t win a game, but received the sportsmanship trophy. The trophy and Blank’s retired No. 4 jersey will go in a new display case.

“As long as I’m principal of the school, he will always be here,” Danette Winslow said.

Blank was described as a quiet, soft-spoken teenager who excelled as an athlete. Friends said he could light up a room with his smile.

“On every single picture he’s smiling, even pictures when you caught him off guard,” said Ashley Rummelt, who said she had a crush on him for three years.

On Wednesday, Camello visited his Spanish class for a short period with the aid of a crutch. Bandages covered the sensitive areas of scratches on his arms and legs.

Students asked about his memories of the incident and his injuries, which were treated by Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital staff. Camello deflected the questions. He left the room giving handshakes.

Nick Smith, Phil Smith’s son, visited the school Tuesday. Students who talked to him said the teenager felt his father had died an honorable death.

“His dad was cool,” Ailiah Schafer said. “He would go on field trips …”

“He really cared about the kids,” Katherine Garrett added.

Grief counselors were sent to the school from the Sacramento Diocese. Students from South Tahoe middle and high schools dropped by the school.

St. Theresa students attended prayer services on Monday and Tuesday. The Tuesday service was organized by the eighth-graders.

After the service, Blank’s classmates lined up to hug his mother.

“It was a tear-jerker,” Winslow said. “It was powerful, but it was powerful because nobody told them to do it … To me that’s the true image of this class.”

Winslow is allowing parents to make the decision whether kindergarten through third-grade students will attend Blank’s Friday service. Those in fourth to eighth grade will attend, unless a parent wants their child excluded.

Faith has played a crucial role for the students at the private Catholic school. Seventh-grade student Sofie Gionannoni said Blank won’t be considered gone but “he’ll be with us in a different way.”

“God didn’t take them away from us,” Winslow said. “It was Michael’s time … We don’t hold God accountable for this.”

In Darlene Sweatt’s social studies room, a collage of Blank’s pictures was on a wash board. A window mural memorialized Blank and Smith.

Katherine Garrett said it would be odd not having her friend attend confirmation, graduation and a trip to Washington, D.C., this year.

But Garrett is not alone in her grieving and healing process.

“It’s really good we have each other,” she said.

E-mail William Ferchland at