A solemn crowd filled the Dorothea Wille PE. Complex on the morning of Oct. 5.
They were there to remember the lives of Dwayne Johnson, Dawna Johnson and their 18-year-old daughter Kiowa-Rain Johnson, who died in a rockslide near Agnes Vaille Falls on Sept. 30 along with two cousins. The Johnson’s 13-year-old daughter, Gracie Johnson, was the lone survivor of the rockslide.
More than a thousand people attended the memorial service, filling the Buena Vista High School gym’s bleachers and seats until there was only room to stand.
“We all knew and were touched by the lives of Dwayne, Dawna and Kiowa,” family friend Mike Carr told the assembled crowd, speaking from a platform adorned with memorial flowers, photographs and athletic jerseys commemorating the Johnsons.
Those community ties were evident in the two hours that followed, as person after person took the stage to commemorate the Johnsons.
The memories were sometimes humorous. Other times, the audience was moved to tears. At all times, the remembrances were heartfelt.
“Today, we as a family and a community, we not only get to mourn something that has been lost … we get to celebrate a life, a life that has been very dear to us,” Cornerstone Church pastor Charlie Stoumbaugh said, speaking of Dwayne, Dawna and Kiowa-Rain as one.
Dwayne was an assistant football coach for the Buena Vista High School Demons. Player after player described Dwayne as a “father figure” who was more than just a coach, their comments recorded in video tributes that played during the service.
Head football coach Matt Flavin’s voice broke with emotion as he described Dwayne as a “dedicated husband and father” who prioritized “faith, family and friends.”
Retired Buena Vista head football coach Bob Marken provided a colorful account of Dwayne and Dawna, a couple he recommended be hired as volunteer coaches.
“The way he coached was the way he lived his life,” Marken said, recalling Dwayne as an unfailingly helpful and generous man whose religious faith was present even on the football field.
Dwayne’s prayers, Marken said, would start with Jesus and end with “now help us kick our opponent’s ass and keep us safe.”
Dawna shared her husband’s love of athletics, and was also involved with the school as a track coach and Odyssey of the Mind coach.
Outside of school, Dawna was a familiar face at the local restaurants where she worked as a waitress.
“Tell me, in what other community could you go out to breakfast, lunch and dinner at three different restaurants have get the same waitress?” Marken said.
In video interviews, coworkers remembered Dawna as a feisty and hard-working woman who placed her family first.
“She was a family girl, her family meant everything to her,” Shirley Fisher said.
Dawna and Dwayne developed close community ties through their work with student athletes.
“They probably raised hundreds of kids, and not just their own,” Shawna Kinkaid said, describing the couple as “role models.”
Their positive influence was evident in their daughter Kiowa-Rain, who turned 18 just two days before her death. The high school athlete was remembered as a loyal friend and peacemaker with an ever-present smile.
Kiowa-Rain’s relationship with her father Dwayne was encapsulated in a letter he wrote for her Sept. 28 birthday, a letter read aloud by her older brother Dakota.
The message from Dwayne contained words of advice to Kiowa-Rain as she became an adult.
Among them: “dream big,” “develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” and “deep, meaningful relationships bring happiness.”
Dakota left the service carrying the ashes of his parents and younger sister in a wood box.
Atop the box sat a small vial containing ashes of his two cousins, Paris Walkup and Baigen Walker, who were on a family visit from Missouri at the time of the accident.
Gracie was among the remaining members of the Johnson exiting the auditorium, her broken leg and injured arm reminding onlookers of the trauma she suffered less than a week before.
Afterward, guests at the memorial service released balloons bearing hand-written messages to the Johnson family.
As the balloons floated away into the chilly October sky, they carried some of the community’s grief with them.