Goddamit. We lost a good one today. No, a great one. Derek McConnell was one of the toughest characters I have had the privilege of drawing for the Joe Bonham Project. In relative terms of time, we spent very little with each other, yet the impact of that first meeting remains fresh in my memory. The hospital room was chaotic- his younger brother back in Jersey was being admitted to the emergency room and Derek's mother was, understandably very upset as she talked on the cell phone trying to get answers and clarification. Derek, for all his injuries, which were many, remained the calm in the storm, reminding his mom, in an assertive voice, that everything was okay as his brother was being attended to. We sat around his bed drawing. In a brief moment of calm I offered to Derek that maybe this wasn't a good time for sketching and we could do this later. He looked at us and commanded that we continue drawing. "Keep drawing. What's gonna happen is gonna happen." The tough North Jersey Irish kid couldn't have said it more succinctly. He was utterly unselfconscious about his wounds and the scars of the septic shock he experienced which he exposed for us to document. Later that year we were again at Walter Reed, part of an Arts and the Military week of events. I was one of the artists drawing the wounded vets who agreed to be subjects. Suddenly I was aware of someone saying hello. It was Derek with Krystina. Nothing had changed other than he was looking substantially stronger. The resolute, unflinching look in the eyes and the sweetest, gentlest, all embracing smile hadn't changed. We talked for a short while and he seemed in such great spirits.
This January when I was receiving my gold medal (not knowing about the Hamilton King award) from the Society of Illustrators, I had invited Derek and Krystina to attend the event as they were in Jersey. Unfortunately, a mere half day separated us from their returning to Walter Reed and the night's ceremony. It seemed so right to have him there as he was hanging on the walls at the time. We were down at Walter Reed last Thursday and unable to see him as he had been admitted, unexpectedly, to the hospital. He had been residing at the outpatient Bldg. 62 and planning on returning to Jersey with his fiancee, Krystina. All systems seemed to be on go and he was progressing well walking on his prosthetic legs. His attitude was great and his thoughts were on the future. Derek's support system was strong. I was so looking forward to drawing him in his progress. And then the phone call from Mike Fay this evening asking me if I had seen the Facebook posting. I know what I am feeling right now. I cannot imagine what those who spent their lives with him are feeling. It was an unforgettable honor to have spent time with him.