Swathed in a dreamed-up cape and armed with the power of an 8-year-old imagination, Jared Vance used to be the only superhero who watched over the playground at Taylor Elementary School.
Last week, though, as Vance's family gathered in a Centerville cemetery to bury the hero, who died Nov. 30 after a gruelling battle with a chordoma tumor, dozens of cape-swathed students swarmed the school to memorialize the second-grader.
"We just wanted to have a moment for Jared," said Austin Bassett, 11, who, along with his sixth-grade class, planned "Hero Day" in the little boy's honor. "People wore Superman shirts and capes for Jared because he wanted to be a superhero when he grew up."
In addition to donning superhero garb, each grade planned and carried out a service project, benefiting the Vance family, the Utah Food Bank, the Women's Shelter and the Utah State Hospital. Students also decorated a Christmas tree for the Vance family. On each ornament, a student wrote a pledge to do a good deed.
The school chose to honor Vance by serving the community because the second-grader was known for taking care of those around him, Bassett said.
"He used to play with me when I didn't have anyone to play with," said Allie Pierce, 7, who sat next to Vance in first-grade. "It made me feel happy."
At recess, Vance and playmate Daris Brimhall, 8, weren't just little boys. They were Spider-Man and Superman, racing to rescue classmates from bullies and fetch bandages to patch up skinned knees.
"We flew around and made sure everyone was safe and happy," Brimhall said. "If there were people hurt, we'd sit down by them and make sure they got help."
Although Vance was bashful, observing class quietly from behind a fringe of blonde bangs, he wasn't shy about finding the children who needed help and pairing up for some reading practice, said Cathy Tonge, Vance's first-grade teacher.
It was a classmate with a learning disability who first noticed symptoms of Vance's tumor in April. The little hero's speech slurred more every day and his eyes started to rotate in. Finally Vance's parents took him out of class to seek treatment on the East Coast.
"I never heard Jared's speech getting worse," Tonge said. "But that child, who was in foster care and just really struggling, he noticed because Jared helped him with his school work all the time."
When Tonge told Vance about "Hero Day" three weeks ago, the little boy, though weak and sick, smiled and said, "Oh, good. Oh good." He was to have attended Friday's festivities, but the tumor, which stretched from the back of his head to his collar bone, overcame him.
Andrew Vance, Jared's father, told the school to move forward as planned.
"We're just honored that the school thought of us," Andrew Vance said. "You'd never think your 7-year-old would make such an impact on the community."15 comments on this story
Many of the students who rallied the neighborhoods for money to help pay the boy's medical bills, lugged in stuffed animals to donate to children at the state hospital and packed up food to ship to the food bank, didn't even know Jared Vance. Still, they carefully penned pledges to "be a hero like Jared" on ornaments decorating the Vance family Christmas tree.
"I can just imagine what he and his family went through," said Brooklyn Paget, 11. "Jared had to have been a real trooper. It really inspired me to want to be a better person."