Josh Friedman was the kind of person people just loved to be around. He had so many friends, he couldn't keep track of them all. And he often would be late to class because people would stop to chat with him in the hall, or give him "high fives."
Josh, a Unionville High School junior, died this week at age 17, the victim of a disease called dyskeratosis congenita, a rare progressive congenital disorder which results in what in some ways resembles premature aging. It's a bone marrow disorder, and the condition is extremely rare, occurring in roughly one in one million people. Median life expectancy is 16.
The disease he had limited his growth to about four feet, but he made up for that with his big smile and positive attitude around people. When Philadelphia Phillies star Jimmy Rollins met Josh last summer during the All-Star break, he left a lasting impression with the shortstop. Rollins had a large bouquet of flowers delivered to the Friedman family's West Chester home after learning of Josh's death.
"He inspired a lot of people," said Bruce Friedman, Josh's father. "He had disabilities, but it never stopped him. He was socially really strong."
Said his mother, Patti: "He was bigger than life, all four feet of him. He was compassionate and he brought the best in people."
The Friedmans came from Voorhees, N.J. to Chester County about nine years ago, shortly before Josh was officially diagnosed with his disease. Despite his limitations, Josh quickly found an interest in Challenger baseball and in acting. He was a natural on stage, and would tell people he was an 'act-tore.' He performed in school plays at C.F. Patton, but he was most proud of his performance as Tiny Tim in the 2009 Christmas musical.
"He was the kid who just made things fun for everyone," Patti recalled about the school play and how all the other students were drawn into him.
"I think he was just like Yoda," Bruce said. "He was wise beyond his years."
This Thanksgiving, Josh will not be at the family dinner with his brother, Noah, and his sister, Katie. But Pattie said she thankful for giving birth to Noah.
"We were blessed to have him in our lives," she said. "I don't know what I did in my lifetime to deserve to have him in my life."
These days, popularity is often gauged by Facebook friends. Josh was so popular that a page created specifically for him after his death called "We Miss Josh Friedman," generated 197 friends in less than 24 hours.
"He made me a better person," said Gene Joynes, Josh's uncle. "He always got everybody smiling."
Joynes said in September he took Josh to the Kennett Square Mushroom Festival, and couldn't make any progress up the street in the wheelchair because all of Josh's friends would stop to chat.
Josh loved superhero characters so much, he often referred to his father as Bruce Wayne, Batman's alter-ego.
Josh's illness took a tremendous toll on the family because of the surgeries and operations, and shuttling between Children's Hospital and DuPont Children's hospital for treatments. But Bruce and Patti have no regrets.
"There was a lot of medical things we had to do," Bruce said. "But you just do it. It makes you stronger and you do it for your son. We are blessed that he taught his brother and sister how to have compassion. I wish he were still here."
Amanda Carson, a Unionville High student, was one of many who found Josh inspiring. This is what she wrote on his Facebook page shortly after his death:
"I don't think I will ever be able to put into words how much you have impacted me. You taught everyone around you how to love and be happy. I will always remember all of our great memories, including when you would try to kill me with a stick while we played Peter Pan. It still hasn't hit me that we will not be playing anymore wiffle ball games in your back yard, but I know this is not goodbye. I don't think you have ever said goodbye to me, it was always "Later manda". So here I am saying later Joshy, one day we will meet again. Love you."
And from Vincent DiPlacido:
"Josh, always there to brighten your day. Josh nicknamed me chubby. Every morning Josh would come onto the bus, find his way to my seat, say "hey chubby." I know I can speak for myself, and the rest of bus 52, that made us all smile every single time. He really did brighten our day every morning. You brought life to the party, and I'll always be your chubby."
Mark Ransford, principal at Chadds Ford Elementary School where Noah and Katie attend school, said donations from faculty and staff are being collected for the West Chester Baurnlyf Camp, where Josh spent so much time.
Josh was in the drama group, a member of Unionville's Best Buddies program, and played baseball for the Bears KAU Challenger baseball team.
In lieu of flowers, contributions in Josh's name to Bournlyf Camp, 1066 S. New St., West Chester, PA 19382, would be appreciated.