Listen to anyone who knew Jake Cassell talk about him, and the story will start with a smile.
The Bethesda, Maryland, teen — who died after being struck by a car Aug. 1 — was remembered during a gathering Friday at Winston Churchill High in Potomac, where he attended school.
There were laughter and tears as the community remembered the lanky 17-year-old with a crooked smile and a giant, open heart.
There was the time when, as a first grader, Jake was warned that he was about to be sent to the principal’s office. “Yes!” he exclaimed. “I love the principal!”
As a Boy Scout, he once baked a cake as part of a group activity. His Scout leader, Mike Schechter, noted the weird-looking cake Jake came up with: a sheet cake with frosting covered with blue sprinkles and little Tootsie Rolls on top.
Schechter recalled no one going near the cake, and he asked Jake exactly what the idea was. “He fell over laughing,” Schechter recalled. “The cake was decorated to look like a dirty cat litter box!”
Schechter said that when all the other Cub Scouts heard that, they devoured the cake.
McLean Bible Church Pastor Mike Kelsey joked about Jake’s special gift to make everyone feel loved.
“There’s only one person I know of who could have brought together the special needs community, athletes, cheerleaders — all the people who, in my lifetime, I was just not qualified to be around,” he said, to the laughter of the crowd.
Churchill’s athletic director, Jesse Smith, recalled how getting students to volunteer to don the mascot costume, the Churchill Bulldog, had been a tough sell. The well-worn costume was notoriously smelly. But one day, a smiling Jake showed up, asking if he could be the mascot.
Smith remembered, laughing, how Jake embraced the role of mascot. Unlike so many teens, Jake wasn’t concerned with looking cool — he just wanted to have fun. Smith said he wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Jake had shown up to play with the bocce team — in the Bulldog costume.
Friends Braden Bachlott and Soroush Tavana also addressed the crowd. Bachlott explained that like him, Jake was on the autism spectrum, and he recalled spending hours enjoying their mutual obsession — public transportation.
Tavana spoke of his friend’s impact on everyone around him and declared, “We will never, ever forget him, because he will always be in our hearts — forever!”
Jake’s father, Steve Cassell, talked about his “wingman” and noted how Jake had friends that bridged social divisions. He lauded Churchill, noting how Jake’s mom asked Jake if he’d ever been bullied.
“Never once, not one single time in this school, was he made to feel less important, less valuable or smaller than any other student,” Cassel said.
Looking out at the crowd that had gathered at the high school auditorium, Cassell said: “What a testament to the wonderful young man he was and the beautiful life he lived.
“Thank you, God, for Jake. Amen!”
The family has created a scholarship in Jake’s name at the grammar school he attended, the nonprofit Diener School, also in Potomac. The school serves students from kindergarten through sixth grade.