CHARLOTTESVILLE — When Will Kinser committed suicide, his son, Thomas, coming home from middle school, was the first one to find his body.
He and his older brother tried to save their father, but it was too late.
No one expected Kinser’s death, and Thomas, then a seventh-grader, felt like his life had shattered. As he grappled with grief, anger and frustration, his grades tumbled downward. He became a bit of a wallflower, his mother said; he would rather sit in silence than have to talk about what happened.
It took Thomas years. It took some mistakes. It took help from friends, family and counselors, whether he wanted it or not at the time.
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But Thomas finally feels like he has control of his life and his future, and the next step in his plans will be completed as he graduates Saturday alongside the Eastern Hancock High School class of 2016.
The milestone is especially poignant for the boy whose life changed so dramatically at a young age.
Thomas was never an extrovert, even before his father’s death, but Principal David Pfaff recalls Thomas withdrawing, becoming isolated and removed from his classmates during the school day.
“I don’t think school was ever easy for him, but he had this added weight,” Pfaff said. “For him, it was like, these people expect me to act like math and English are really, really important, and this is happening in my family.”
Thomas remembers it, too — the feeling of dread that followed the innocent inquiry he got too often: how are you?
“I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to be around anyone,” Thomas said. “I was angry and frustrated, and I didn’t know what to do with that,” he said.
He’s come a long way, mother Carole Kinser said.
He found outlets, ways to cope with that anger.
Weight-lifting became Thomas’s solace, in a way, she said — his future was something he could control, so he focused with enthusiasm on lifting.
Thomas tried football in middle school. He didn’t care for running but loved the weight room — it felt comforting to him, hoisting those chunks of metal above his head again and again.
“Working out became a stress reliever for him,” his mother said. “When he was at school and having a hard time coping, he’d hit the gym.”
At some point, the routine — the getaway — became a passion. Thomas started wanting what the other kids did: to be in shape, to make good grades, to have close friends.
He set his eyes on that path and didn’t stop.
Thomas’ counselor throughout middle school and high school, Jenn Lightcap, remembers hearing the news.
She tears up when she remembers the withdrawn boy he was, in comparison with the kind, thoughtful young man he has become.
“He’s amazing,” she said. “Even from before his dad died, he’s made a big change, but with that, it’s a huge transformation.”
Thomas plans to take a year off school and then attend Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana to become a physical therapist. He’s also considered being a personal trainer or a counselor, Lightcap said.
Growing up without a father left irreplaceable gaps in Thomas’ life, but there were those who stepped up to help. He had great role models in his mother and his uncle, Dan Mroz of Michigan, who were there every step of the way, he said.
His uncle isn’t one to let him slip — even today.
“He’ll tell me what I’m doing right or when to get my act together,” Thomas said.
Carole Kinser said she is proud to see her son so driven and self-motivated. She attributes this not only to his determination but also many good teachers and people in their lives.
He still has mixed feelings about his dad. Some days, he doesn’t think about him at all; some days, he misses him; some days, he hates him for what he put their family through.
But he knows his father would have been proud to see him graduate with mostly A’s and B’s, to have a college selected and a plan for the future.
Having family and friends around was important to his recovery from the trauma of losing his father. He is grateful to school staff, including Pfaff and Lightcap, as well as the Eastern Hancock Community, for its support.
“I didn’t go through anything alone,” he said. “Even when I wanted to.”