For eight months, the City of Tonawanda has been “Red for Jed,” as the community rallied around 19-year-old Jedidiah Woomer after he was diagnosed in July with synovial sarcoma, a rare form of soft tissue cancer.
“At first he was so embarrassed because he’s an 18-, 19-year-old boy,” said his sister, Amanda. “You should be strong and independent and here he is sick in a hospital. His body can’t heal itself.”
But after an outpouring of support for the Eagle Scout, lifeguard and 2014 Tonawanda High School graduate, Woomer came to embrace it, with love and gratitude.
“Knowing he had neighbors and friends and family and classmates and people in the community he didn’t even know rallying behind him and praying for him, it took a load off of him to know that he wasn’t alone,” Amanda said. “People were sharing this burden with him.”
Woomer died Wednesday in Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, where he had undergone surgery Monday to remove a tumor from his chest.
“Jed did not lose the battle to cancer,” his sister said Thursday from Long Island. “When he got out of that surgery, he was cancer-free. He beat the cancer. But in the end it was just that his heart was so weakened. That’s what ended up killing him. He died of heart failure from the chemotherapy.”
Friends and neighbors who generated the “Red for Jed” movement were devastated by the loss of a promising young man remembered for his smile, empathy and positive outlook.
“It absolutely brought the whole community out,” Lynn Becker Casal said Thursday. “Everybody loved Jed. There’s not a bad thing you could say about him. He fought very hard and did it on his terms. He left this earth without cancer inside of him and that’s what he wanted.”
Hundreds of people turned out in November at a mammoth fundraiser in the American Legion, including First Ward Councilman Charles Gilbert, who had his head shaved after $8,500 was raised in a Bald For Bucks campaign.
“I was never more proud of this community than I was that night to see so many people involved to help out his family,” said Gilbert. “A year ago nobody knew them. They were a normal family going through their daily lives. In a short period of time, they became a symbol for the entire community on how to stay strong.”
Born Dec. 23, 1995, Woomer was a lifelong Tonawanda resident. He achieved the Eagle Scout rank in June after a service project that involved scraping and painting the facade at the Ghostlight Theatre in North Tonawanda, where he acted in productions.
He worked as a lifeguard at the Town of Tonawanda’s Brighton pool in the summer, and at its Aquatic & Fitness Center in the winter.
“He loved it,” Amanda Woomer said. “If he could spend his whole life on the water, he would. Beaches, boats – he loved it all.”
As a senior co-captain of his high school swim team, he was only a couple tenths of a second away from winning a patch at an ECIC swim meet. He did not know he was at a disadvantage, carrying a football-sized tumor inside his chest.
“We wonder how fast could he go if he wasn’t carrying that extra weight,” his sister said.
Woomer was named “most improved” swimmer his senior year, said his swim coach, Tim Harroun, who also noted the 6-foot-4 swimmer’s “goofy, bubbly character.”
“He worked hard,” Harroun said. “It took him a little while because the goofball in him kind of got in the way. But toward the end he really worked hard to get where he did.”
After his diagnosis, Carly’s Club at Roswell Park Cancer Institute made Woomer the face of Carly’s Crossing, an event that raises money for pediatric cancer causes at Roswell Park.
“Jed was an outstanding young man – humble, generous, with a verve for life, swimming and fishing,” a post Thursday on the charity’s Facebook page read.
Woomer had expressed an interest in pursuing a career in engineering, School Superintendent James Newton said. At graduation last year, Woomer was presented with the Tonawanda Foundation Award by his sister, who surprised him by flying home from China, where she works.
“When she went on stage, he couldn’t believe it,” Newton said. “They hugged each other in the center of the stage. He lifted her up and her feet were in the air. It was just so beautiful.”
Amanda Woomer, known affectionately by her brother as “Sisso,” remembered stories of his selflessness.
The time he counseled a classmate who was being bullied and unknowingly pulled her back from the brink of committing suicide. Or during February’s severe cold while on his way to chemotherapy in Roswell Park when he expressed concern for the homeless living under a bridge, forgetting for a moment the painful treatment he was about to undergo.
Or, on the day before he died, when Woomer was visited in his hospital room by the father of a young patient.
“After he had left, Jed turned to my mom and said, ‘I think we should pray for Sally. Can we pray for Sally?’ ” Amanda Woomer said. “Time and time again he said and did things that were so selfless. He put the rest of us to shame. Even though he had this monster growing inside him, he still continued to be so positive.”
Even after Woomer’s death, the city will remain “Red for Jed.” Mayor Rick Davis is having a portion of City Hall lit red through the weekend and requested that city employees wear red Friday.
“He became such an icon for what our city stands for,” said Davis, whose daughter graduated with Woomer last year. “We’re a bunch of fighters and we all stick together. A lot of people in the community feel like they lost a friend when Jed passed away.”
In addition to his sister, Woomer is survived by his parents, Mark and Carolyn. A fund has been set up at life.indiegogo.com/fundraisers/jedidiah-woomer-family to help the Woomer family with expenses. In one day, the fund had raised more than $1,500.
The family will be present from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. April 19 and 20 at the John O. Roth Funeral Home, 25 William St., City of Tonawanda.