On Sept. 8, a celebration of life was held at the La Jolla Presbyterian Church. On Sept. 9, a paddle-out at Marine Street Beach took place, with an incredible outpouring of support from members of the community as dozens of people showed up to honor the memory of the La Jolla High graduate.
“Our hearts are breaking with the tragic death of Willie Calabrese. We have a very special community that has embraced and supported the Calabrese family,” said community member DeAnna Andrews. “Willie will be forever in our hearts.”
On Aug. 31, Calabrese was helping set up a fireworks display at a game of the Lake Elsinore Storm, the San Diego Padres’ minor-league team, when an accidental explosion happened. Calabrese was burned on more than 90 percent of his body, and passed away two days later.
Calabrese’s aunt, Kristina Calabrese Stracke, said her nephew was an “exceptionally bright and driven young man” who was participated in a variety of activities and hobbies, including glass blowing.
“ He was an inventor, always tinkering in the backyard,” she said.
Calabrese, who was a certified lifeguard and an Eagle Scout, played water polo for La Jolla High School until graduating in 2010. He was entering his junior year at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Stracke said he had recently revealed his desire to become a psychiatrist so he could help other people.
“I was privileged to be there when he was born and grateful I had a chance to say goodbye before his passing,” Stracke said.
Calabrese’s high school water polo coach, Tom Atwell, described Calabrese as “selfless” and an “incredible example of service to others” in a eulogy he posted on the water polo club’s website following Calabrese’s death.
“Willie was an incredible example to all of us. He worked harder than anyone,” Atwell wrote. “He loved to laugh. He was open-minded, non-judgmental and forgiving. He was the guy you wanted to go into battle with. He always had your back, whether it was in the water or away from the pool.”
Through Stracke, Calabrese’s brother, Ron Jr., described Calabrese as the “greatest brother he could have.”
“He was guy that really stuck to his guns, a man of principle and he did what he loved. He really did,” he said.
Three years ago, the La Jolla Village News published a story about Calabrese and his work on a prayer garden in Pacific Beach as part of his Eagle Scout project.
The project, which Calabrese had thought would be a small prayer garden for those who visit the church, turned into a much larger undertaking — a community memorial garden for the entire neighborhood.
“Most people’s Eagle Scout projects are nothing like this,” Calabrese said during the construction of the project. “It was like four Eagle Scout projects … I never intended for it to grow into this. It was more than an Eagle Scout project; it was a community project.”
His mother, Janice, said that, like any other Eagle Scout project, Calabrese was responsible for the planning and execution. His project, however, involved about four months of work before the construction started, making it a much larger venture.
“In that respect,” she said, “there probably could have been a few projects made out of his one project.”
Calabrese, who grew up across from the church on Loring Street, was able to watch from his bedroom window as visitors stopped by the garden to rest and enjoy his hard work — which had included leveling the earth (for which he learned how to operate a Bobcat), installing several nearly 1,000-pound palm trees, building a pergola for shade, planting drought-tolerant plants and installing a drip irrigation system. He planted olive trees and rosemary bushes, and had low-voltage lights put in to illuminate the garden at night. The work, Calabrese said at the time, “went beyond my wildest expectations.”
On Sept. 2, the night Calabrese passed away, community members formed a candlelight vigil at the prayer garden within an hour of the family’s return from the hospital.
Calabrese would have turned 21 on Sept. 10.
Those wishing to make a donation to the family are asked to make checks out to the La Jolla United Methodist Church with “Willie” in the memo line. Online donations can be made by visitng www.lajollawaterpolo.com/w/ and following the link to “Willie Calabrese Donations.” Donations will be used to help the family with funeral expenses. Excess funds will be donated in Calabrese’s name to the Burn Institute and Vista Hill Foundation, and for scholarships in his name for the San Diego Junior Lifeguard Foundation, Pacific Beach Christian Church Summer Camp, La Jolla Water Polo and Boy Scout Troop 506 Summer Camp.