Sean French was born on Sept. 21, 1984, and hit the ground
running. "Never walked anywhere," says his father, Mark. "He'd
run from the living room to the kitchen."
By age eight Sean is joyously running on the quarter-mile drive
that encircles St. James Cemetery, two lots from his house
outside Chatham, N.Y., 22 miles southeast of Albany. "We call
it," says his mother, Cathy, "the St. James Track Club." Soon,
Sean is running all over the village, waving to townspeople,
like George Bailey running up Main Street in It's a Wonderful
Life. Chatham really does have a Main Street, and an old movie
palace where all shows are $3.50, and its very own George Bailey
in Sean French--except Sean has more friends than George Bailey
Is it any wonder? Sean makes the Chatham High varsity track and
cross-country teams in the seventh grade. In ninth grade he goes
to the prom with the prettiest girl in Chatham, senior Heather
Wemple. "No one was surprised when they walked in together," says
friend Kevin Quinn. "Everyone knew Sean was the future Prom and
Everyone knows it but Sean, who is oddly oblivious to every rule
of high school cool. He is, for example, the first overnight
guest in the home of classmate Ian Moore, whose little brother
is autistic. Instantly, Ian's self-consciousness evaporates, as
Sean rolls around on the floor with the giddy kid brother.
When a girl stumbles on the stairs at school--and her books fly
and her cheeks turn crimson and the hallway echoes with
laughter--Sean helps her to her feet, silencing his schoolmates.
And when another girl arrives at a school dance and stands
awkwardly along the wall with her mother, it's Sean who peels
the mom from the girl and the girl from the wall and welcomes
her into his conversation.
Sean is still serving Mass as an altar boy at St. James Catholic
Church even after he grows tall and his robes grow short and he
looks, says his father, "like he's wearing a skirt."
Of course, he can get away with it, because 6'1", 165-pound Sean
French is one of the best athletes his county has seen in
decades, setting the conference record (4:18.4) in the 1,600
meters as a sophomore and finishing second at the 2001 state
finals. He now has so many medals that he sometimes holds back,
letting slower teammates breast the tape. He wins the
steeplechase in a state sectional as slowly as possible, to
preserve the school record of his older brother, Eric, who tells
his father, "I'm not afraid to say I've learned from my little
Sean plans to run a 4:15 mile as a junior this spring, and a 4:10
next spring, and in college--who can say? He runs 75 miles a week
and buses tables at Ciao Ristorante; he tries to shovel a lane of
the school track following a 25-inch snowstorm and drinks only
Powerade at a New Year's Eve party so he'll be fresh for a
half-marathon the next day in Albany. At 10 minutes to midnight
he calls home to wish his folks a Happy New Year and to say, just
before hanging up, "I love you, Mom."
Sean watches the fireworks above Main Street at midnight and
climbs into an '88 Pontiac driven by a classmate. At three
minutes after midnight, on Route 203, the car skids, hits a tree
and flips, throwing Sean, presumably unbelted, through a window.
He is pronounced dead 90 minutes later. The other backseat
passenger, his buddy Ian, the one with the autistic brother, is
paralyzed from the navel down. The driver had been drinking and
was stopped, only 18 days earlier, for driving while impaired.
(He is charged with vehicular manslaughter.)
When Mark and Cathy French donate Sean's eyes, skin and
organs--two hours after the accident, at Albany Medical
Center--a surgeon says that, through Sean, others will see, feel
and live. But of course, through Sean, others had been doing
that all along, as we learn on Jan. 3, when Sean's casket is
laid on the very altar on which he used to serve Mass.
The line to get into St. James Church is breathtaking--three
quarters of a mile long. More than 3,500 come, nearly double the
population of Chatham, a conga line of grief that stretches to
the horizon. Nerds sob, and so do archrival athletes. "Girls,"
says pallbearer Kevin Quinn, "are crying their eyes out."
Sean Patrick French now lies in St. James Cemetery, an eternal
member of the St. James Track Club. I know him because his
friends wrote to me, and now I'm writing to you, and do you see
what's happening here? "Sean," says his father, "is still making
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF MARK FRENCH FAMILY