Tears, laughter and applause erupted intermittently Sunday as friends and family celebrated the life of Tuolumne County native and Air Force Major Lucas Gruenther, killed in a plane crash early this year in Italy.
Hundreds filled the Summerville High gym to pay homage to the pilot from Twain Harte, whose plane crashed in the Adriatic Sea on Jan. 28.
At the time of his death, Gruenther, 32, was an F-16 pilot stationed at Aviano Air Force Base in Italy. He was conducting a nighttime training exercise when the base lost contact with his plane.
A memorial service was held at his air base in Italy, attended by more than 1,000 people, including several family members. The next morning, on Feb. 7, his wife and Summerville High School sweetheart, Cassy, gave birth to their daughter, Serene.
A funeral service with full military honors will be held at 10:30 a.m. March 22 at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
His family and closest friends thanked the people who filled the Summerville High gym Sunday for joining them in celebrating his life. A slideshow of pictures of his life was shown, and the program concluded with a video his mother made of a motivational talk he gave to students at Summerville High last year in which he encouraged students to strive for their goals.
The speakers were all close friends or family except for Gaylene Ramos, of the Merced chapter of Blue Star Parents, who presented the family with flags containing blue stars for service members. Gold stars are put on top of the blue stars for military members who have died.
Chucker Twining said Luc, as everyone called him, was his son's best friend and like a second son to him. "He was a happy, loving, complex guy," he said through tears. "He always looked to do what was right."
He said Luc was a leader on soccer teams, playing goalie most of the time because he was a tall kid. In high school, he was active in student government and sports. He loved climbing mountains and taking pictures. He could be a daredevil at times.
"I seem to remember hearing about some shovel races at Sonora Pass, and that he even tried to jump the road once," he said.
He ended by saying Gruenther lived life to the fullest. Everyone, he said, needs to "Live like Luc."
Twining's son, David Twining, said Gruenther didn't quite make that jump and landed in the road, but he didn't get hurt.
David Twining and Gruenther met in kindergarten and immediately became best friends. He said they were adventurous, but they weren't perfect.
"I think we held the record for the most detentions in kindergarten," he said.
He said he remembers in high school that Gruenther had a list of things he wanted to do before he died, which included being a pilot and learning a foreign language, both of which he did. Family members said he continued the list until his death, and completed many more things on it.
They plan to make sure things on his list for baby Serene end up happening, including taking her to a Giants game and teaching her to be bilingual.
"He is somebody I looked up to my whole life," Twining said. "I will try to live like him."
Gruenther's brother, Chance Hildreth, said his brother pushed him to have an adventurous life.
"He never saw anything bad in anyone," he said. "He would find something good about them and focus on that. I want to live more like Lucas. I'm going to plan more trips and try to treat everyone the way he did."
Gruenther's mother said her son had many skills, in addition to being an Air Force pilot. They included scuba diving, speaking three languages fluently (English, Spanish and Italian), being a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and more.
Most important, Luc had character," she said. "He always treated people with respect, He was awesome."
She said she tended to yell at her sons sometimes, and one day when he was 8, Luc told her he felt that perhaps there was a more effective way to get him to do what she wanted.
"Of course, I cracked up, and that was the end of what I was yelling about," she said.
An example of how much he cared about others, she said, was one day when he was driving down the road and a lady flipped him off. It bothered him so much he followed her into a gas station and asked if he had somehow offended her.
"She said he cut her off. He told her he was so sorry. They became friends, and she ended up apologizing," she said.
Other speakers included Eli Doster, a friend since first grade at Twain Harte Elementary; Annie Hockett, a friend who said he was the model of what a husband should be, and sister-in-law Janelle Williams, who said he first mentioned Serene as the name of his daughter at least 15 years ago.
She said a sadness lingers because the family wanted so much to see him meet the daughter he had talked so much about, but she said she knows the baby can feel his presence.
In lieu of flowers, Gruenther's family asked that donations be made to the Major Lucas Gruenther Memorial Fund via his memorial website, www.lucasgruenther.com. The fund will give scholarships to young men and women who emulate Gruenther's "love for life and outgoing positive personality," his family said.