WEST ORANGE, NJ — Members of the West Orange community and beyond came out to celebrate the life of a man whose life was cut too short as a result of a training accident at West Point last week.
Hundreds of people packed into the Tarnoff Gymnasium at West Orange High School (WOHS) on Tuesday to pay their respects at a memorial service held in honor of 22-year-old Christopher "C.J." Morgan, a member of the WOHS Class of 2015 and West Point Cadet who was set to graduate in the Spring of 2020.
The memorial, according to West Orange High School (WOHS) wrestling coach Stephen Zichella, was quickly organized with the help of district administrators, including WOHS Principal Hayden Moore and West Orange Athletic Director Ron Bligh, who also acted as the emcees throughout the event.
“They talked to the family and we wanted to honor him because all the services will be done at West Point,” Zichella said. “We wanted our community to celebrate what an amazing human being Chris was.”
Zichella added that the fact that so many people, including several former West Orange wrestlers, former teammates and other WOHS alumni, attended the ceremony is not only a testament to the impact that Morgan had on the district and the township, but is also “a reflection of who Chris was.”
Zichella, who said he knew more than half the people who attended the memorial, also mentioned that there were “so many more who couldn’t make it,” but were there in spirit.
Morgan, also affectionately known as “Chicago,” was a star athlete at the high school—mostly known for his prowess in wrestling, but also playing on the football team and acting as captain for both teams. He was also a dedicated trombone player, participating in several WOHS band ensembles.
The West Orange Athletic Department also honored Morgan by putting his wrestling shoes in the center of the mat, which is the tradition when a wrestler finishes his or her career.
“We had his shoes and we put them in the center of the mat indicating that he’s wrestled his last match,” Zichella said. “And usually there’s a round of ovation, so we wanted to really acknowledge and recognize Chris.”
Many members of the community, including West Orange Board of Education member Terry Trigg-Scales, said that everyone needed Morgan because he was the catalyst that allowed everyone to step up and come together in times of need.
Brigadier General Jemal J. Beale, who represented Governor Phil Murphy, said that West Orange is the “greatest city in New Jersey” because of how the community came together to pay respects to the Morgan family.
Dylan Pennell—a member of the WOHS Class of 2014, the U.S. Navy and Morgan’s fellow wrestling teammate and friend—said that he could tell that Morgan had an impact on everyone who knew him just by reading all the recent posts on social media.
“We’re all here because Chris was an inspiration to us, because our lives were blessed by his kindness, charm and his spirit,” he said. “I could never speak to all the ways that Chris has impacted his friends—it’s too much to say, not nearly enough time here tonight—but there’s also no need to tell it all here, because our stories and our memories of Chris we [will] share time and time again for years to come. That is the measure of his enormous impact on our lives.”
Christopher Morgan Sr. thanked all who came to honor his son and mentioned that because of him, he made his parents “look like rock stars.”
“Just by hearing how he’s impacted not just his teammates; not just his friends; not just his siblings, but also his coaches, teachers, his principals, it’s incredible, we’re amazed, we’re humbled and flabbergasted and thankful to have had a chance to raise him for the 22 years that we did,” Morgan Sr. concluded.
Morgan’s younger brother, Colin, an outgoing senior at WOHS, is also set to attend West Point in the fall. He mentioned that a week before his brother’s passing, he had discussed with his older brother “how cool it was going to be to have two brothers at West Point together,” but he quipped, “I guess they weren’t ready for that yet.”
According to WOHS Principal Hayden Moore, Morgan was the first African-American student from WOHS to be admitted into West Point, but said that Morgan would be remembered for his bright smile, his humility, his crushing handshake and for his ability to see the positive in everything and everyone.
The Morgan family was gifted two pieces of art by two West Orange alumni: a painting of Morgan with the caption “Faith. Family. Duty. Honor. Country.” and a photo-creation of an enlarged family photo.
The WOHS wrestling coaches, representing the Morgan family, are currently raising funds on GoFundMe to help the family with any financial needs during this time.
Morgan leaves behind his parents, Christopher Sr. and April Morgan; brother, Colin; and sisters, Cameron and Chase.