published Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

David Cook: Josh Bailey and his ghost

Need something to feel good about? A double espresso of pick-me-up joy amidst the doom-and-gloom headlines?

Then meet Josh Bailey.

And his ghost.

While he was alive, Josh was everybody's best man. Humble, funny, big-hearted. People say he hung the moon. The best student they ever had. The best brother on the planet. Even President Clinton liked him.

But the crazy thing about Josh is how he continues to live, nine years after he died.

"He was an old soul," said his sister Sarah Robert.

Josh was the best of America, the exact opposite of a marathon bomber. He grew up on an eighth-generation family farm in Columbia, Tenn., soaked up all the family vacations to battlefields and monuments, believed in serving others like it was a rule, rather than a suggestion.

He loved history books, but could barely read them. Josh had dyslexia: His brain jumbled up the words worse than a circus juggler.

So when it came time for his Eagle Scout project, Josh created an in-service presentation for his high school teachers explaining what it was like to be him in the classroom.

"It kind of blew up," said Sarah.

Like a Christmas bonus. Teachers loved it so much, they asked Josh to present every year. Word got around to the Department of Education; one thing led to another, and Josh gets invited to the White House in 1997, testifies before Congress on student learning disabilities and then looks on as President Bill Clinton signed amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

"He was 15," Sarah said.

Josh wanted to be a history teacher more than anything in the world. Graduating high school, he enrolls in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's education program, while also signing up for the National Guard.

(See? Not just teaching, but the military, too. It's like he couldn't not give back.)

"He thought it was his job and duty to serve," Sarah said.

After cramming through final exams in 2002, he was activated and then deployed. First

to Fort Campbell, Ky., then to Baghdad.

Like any deploying soldier, Josh had to create his living will. Like any hero, he thought of others. So there in the attorney's office, Josh laid out the conditions for his will.

If anything happens to me, take my military money and give it to other students for college.

In 2004, he returned from Iraq to begin his senior year at UTC. One night, he and his best Army bud went bowling; Josh never came home.

A single-car accident. He was 23.

"He was a star. A jewel to me," said one of his favorite UTC professors, Dr. Linda Johnston, who keeps a framed picture of Josh on her desk. "Sometimes I get overcome with emotion when I talk about him."

One day after his death, Johnston's phone rang. It was Sarah. She told Johnston about her brother's will, and how he wanted his military money used to help others.

"He wanted to share his love of education and love of learning with everybody he could," said his sister.

Since 2005, the Joshua L. Bailey Education Foundation has awarded $75,000 in scholarship money to graduating seniors in Josh's home Maury County and education students at UTC. One week ago, UTC seniors Jonathan Brocco and Kaleb West were each given $1,000 to help pay for graduate school.

They're going to be history teachers. Just like Josh wanted to be.

"Oh, man," said West. "It's been a really big honor."

"I'll share his story to all of my students," said Brocco. "It's the greatest honor I've ever received."

Maybe when it's all said and done, what matters most is what we do for others. Teaching, at its heart, is about service. Somehow, Josh Bailey knew this to his deepest core.

"He was the perfect teacher," said his sister.

He still is.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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