By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special To The Bulletin | Published Thursday, June 20, 2013
ATLANTA—John Ryan Gagnon ran steadfastly through his years at Habersham Central High School in Mount Airy, from painstaking afternoon practices around campus to uplifting weekend runs amidst the shady, hilly trails of Lake Russell. Keeping his eye on the prize, the track and cross country athlete finally broke school records for one- and two-mile distances his senior year.
“I had a goal to do it. Year by year you keep getting a little bit faster. I ran at least an hour daily and some days it was two hours,” Gagnon recounted. “(Running) is good about making you focus on disciplining yourself. … You have to run every day and train and put the work in. A lot of times you don’t want to, but you have to, to get the results.”
And running helped him to stay on course with his schoolwork. The son of Helen O’Brien and Tom Gagnon, he recently graduated as salutatorian of the class of 2013 at Habersham. A member of St. Mark Church in Clarksville, he will attend Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia, Pa. In high school Gagnon dove deeply into classwork.
“I just focused on trying to make sure I was on top of everything that needed to get done and spent what time was necessary to do my best in things. It was making it my first priority,” he said. “When you get in the right classes, you get good teachers and other students who help motivate you.”
Gagnon loves history and reading about historical figures that have overcome overwhelming obstacles to achieve greatness. He recently read about Meriwether Lewis who “overcame incredible geographic barriers, language barriers and shortages of supplies” to accomplish his transcontinental expedition. His career goal is to teach history in high school or college.
“I’ve really enjoyed helping other people understand what’s being taught,” he said.
He encourages others “not (to) be afraid to get interested and engaged in the subjects you study.”
High school counselor Saresa Garrett described him as a quiet, witty gentleman who “has a passion for learning for the sake of learning” and is “so gracious and giving.”
“John has the most humble spirit that I have witnessed in a teenager his age. He has approached each class in high school with the expectation of ‘I am here to learn everything you can teach me.’ John is able to take the skills and ideas he has learned in the classroom and make those life connections,” she said.
At church, Gagnon has participated in the youth group where he has tried to encourage younger kids.
“We’re family to each other and kind to each other and it’s a good place to be around,” he reflected.
There he has quietly grown in his Catholic faith, encouraged by his parents to stay active in church. Catholicism “is a good spiritual foundation for (leading your life) and it gives you your strength,” he said.
Reaching out in faith, Gagnon and his mother ventured on a mission trip to Nicaragua two years ago through the Amigos for Christ nonprofit. There the teen dug waterlines to provide running water for the village of El Chonco. “It just changes your whole perspective on what poor is and how different things can be.”
Gagnon now prepares to head north for his new adventure at Swarthmore with its emphasis on academic rigor, dialogue and discovery. Plus he looks forward to running there and exploring the idyllic campus’ rolling hills and wooded trails.
“When I started looking into it, I found it is a really good, engaging and interesting place and I felt I could fit in well,” he said. “I’m excited about moving on to college and being able to experience a whole different depth of study.”
Garrett believes “it would be very natural to imagine John ‘hanging’ out with his professors, talking about what he is learning, and even helping them do research.”
“His mind is constantly investigating. … He chose Swarthmore after much deliberation, so he is going to love his experience there and probably not want to leave,” she said.