An old adage holds that in life it is not so much the knockdown, but the standing back up.



An old adage holds that in life it is not so much the knockdown, but the standing back up.

The setbacks aren’t as critical as the moving forward.

And, last week, in deep tragedy, a community, two communities really, and a family, provided a textbook example in grace, courage, and fellowship at the most painful of times.

Over five days, witnesses said, a community helped a family, and a close-knit community, knocked down to stand.

“This experience was one of the most spiritual experiences I’ve had in my life,” said Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison.

The shame, of course, is that this tale of good, which played out here last Tuesday through Saturday, began with heartbreaking tragedy.

Just after 6 p.m. ET on July 4, Henry Alexander Wise, 19, of Daphne, AL, was on a jet ski with a friend when an incident, still under investigation, occurred involving a boat just beyond the buoys which mark the entrance into the Gulf County Canal.

It was, according to witnesses, kids being kids and fooling around.

As many would say in the ensuing days, Wise was a young man who had, at an early age, demonstrated an innate ability to squeeze every ounce from every day.

“He was just a happy life,” said Jim Norton, whose nephew Reid is Wise’s best friend, Norton’s brother the best friend of Wise’s father. “And this boy loved Independence Day, loved America.”

Norton noted that Wise, a ninth-generation descendant of Martha Washington, the nation’s true First Lady, was wearing red, white and blue swim trunks when the accident occurred.

Wise and his buddy were pulled under the boat; the buddy surfaced, critically injured with severe lacerations to this thighs.

He has undergone two surgeries but it is expected to make a full recovery, Harrison said.

Wise was never seen again.

What followed over the days that followed was a community wrapping its arms around a bereaved family, who had come to enjoy a post-high school graduation beach vacation.

“I have been on the side of give and receive and I would rather be the one giving,” Norton said. “What I witnessed, what I was on the receiving side of, was pure love, uplifting love, it was so uplifting to the family.

“How humbled as a resident of this county I was by the outpouring of love and support to my family. There was just nothing but good.”

The search for Wise began immediately and by nightfall, Harrison said, transformed from a rescue operation to a search operation.

The U.S. Coast Guard, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Bay County Sheriff’s Office aviation unit and dive team joined the operation.

Wewahitchka Search and Rescue, Gulf County Search and Rescue, the Florida Highway Patrol helicopter unit all took part as the search unfolded and days dragged into more days.

Six members of the local flying club out of Costin Airport also took to the air to search.

Dog teams provided by the Polly Klass Foundation went out each morning combing for a scent, anything that might narrow the search field.

Incredibly, the city of Daphne also took part, with Norton estimating hundreds of friends and neighbors making the trek south to join the search for their friend, their favored son.

A Daphne construction company brought underwater sonar and several boats owned by Daphne residents became part of the flotilla, Harrison said.

“We have had boats on the water and we’ve been busy with the planes,” Harrison said.

And as the days played out, the outreach extended beyond the water.

Local churches provided meals; Harrison said each morning as the search teams convened under the Tapper Bridge on the Highland View side and breakfast was mentioned, 30 minutes later somebody, a local church, someone, had brought breakfast.

Local churches organized meals and evening prayer vigils.

The morning gatherings became breaks for fellowship, local pastors providing messages and spiritual songs, including “Amazing Grace” were spontaneously sung, Harrison said.

“We had a special time every day there,” Harrison said. “There were so many people walking up and wanting to help.

“It’s been humbling to see the community pour out to a family they don’t know, from another state.”

Norton hardly knew where to start in identifying those to thank.

From Raffield and Wood’s Fisheries to the elderly man, of obviously limited means, who shuffled up to provide two bottles of Gatorade and shuffled back home without a word, the acts of kindness and support, small and large, were almost too many to individualize.

“Those two bottles of Gatorade, that act represented thousands of acts from this community to that (Wise family and Daphne) community,” Norton said. “I would belittle the effort to try to name everybody.

“I am hesitant about naming names because every part of our community reached out. I watched the most beautiful effort of a community coming together with the common denominator of Henry Wise.”

That nurturing embrace from the community, Norton added, assisted the Wise family in finding closure.

“After five days under that bridge, with all the love and support they were able to find closure,” Norton said.

On Saturday near sunset, about 10 boats carrying family and friends motored out to the site of the accident and held a memorial service.

On Sunday, in front of a standing-room only gathering in Daphne, a “celebration of life” was held.

That, however, is hardly the end of the story.

The Wise family and friends from Daphne cleaned out the Piggly Wiggly of “PSJ” car decals and more will be coming from the Tourist Development Council.

They wanted, Norton said, to honor the community that had so honored them.

Sandie Kennedy had nearly 100 t-shirts, inscribed with Bible verses, remaining from a church mission trip, which were distributed among much of the Alabama contingent.

The family will establish a foundation in the name of Henry Wise and expressed to Norton the desire to provide any kind of suitable support to the Gulf County and Wewahitchkha search and rescue teams.

“It was all just really amazing,” Norton said of the impact on the folks from Alabama. “People saw an effort they never thought could be rallied together.

“It was a complete effort and a lot of good they will never forget.”

And, Harrison said this week, the search continues for Wise.

The operation may be scaled back a bit, but, at least for now, the search will go on.

“We are going to continue,” Harrison said early this week. “That’s our job to do it.”