Westlake High School senior Nicole Marie Johnson, a standout athlete and aspiring actress, looked forward to graduating Thursday with her classmates. But that was not to be.
The popular 17-year-old soccer player and track star was killed last month when a suspected drunk driver slammed into her car outside the school stadium as she headed home from practice.
In tribute to the sprinter known as "Ni-Jo," the Class of 2003 dedicated its commencement ceremony to the memory of Johnson and two others -- honor students Jordan Alexander Bass and Kenneth Marshall Glass -- who also died in automobile accidents. The dedication extended to William Wachter, a social studies teacher, and Maria E. Coletta, a cafeteria worker, both of whom died of cancer this year.
Although tragedy has touched the campus before, this collective loss is the greatest in memory for the school's students, staff members and parents.
"This is the first time any graduating class has had to face this much sorrow when trying to forge ahead with their future," said Cheryl Bass, Jordan's mother. "It's been a huge reminder that life is so precious."
Bass and Glass, both 16, died three days after Christmas 2001 when Glass, traveling at more than 100 mph during a late-night food run, lost control of his mother's Mercedes-Benz station wagon and crashed into a brick wall along Westlake Boulevard.
Glass had hoped to attend Columbia University and was a member of the Westlake High basketball and volleyball teams. One coach said Glass was the sort of dedicated athlete "who did whatever is good for the team."
Bass, who was also known for his sense of humor, could play four instruments and performed with his band "Trase" at teen-only clubs in Hollywood. An avid golfer, Bass idolized Tiger Woods, whom he met once while playing at North Ranch Country Club.
His mother said he played 27 holes each day during the summer and 18 holes in the afternoons throughout the school year.
"He was a purist with his sport. Kenny was the same way," she said. "They were determined children with excellent academic records. It took that level of commitment to achieve their level of excellence in academics and sports."
Before assembling for the 5 p.m. commencement exercise, nearly 20 students gathered across the street from the school at the corner where Johnson's smashed Volkswagen came to a rest -- the site now a roadside memorial decorated with bouquets, rose petals, candles, cards and photos of the teen.
"Nicole epitomizes what the Class of 2003 is all about. You'll never find anyone who disliked her. She drew us closer together," said senior Zach Verdin, one of a handful of friends who got tattoos with Johnson's name or initials after her death. Senior Steven Boyle knew all three former students and described them as hard-working, intelligent and very well-liked on campus. "They were 'dream kids.' The kind every parent would ask and pray for," Boyle said.
Trees were planted on campus for Bass, Glass and Johnson along with bronze plaques bearing their names. With donations from students, parents and local businesses, $1,500 scholarships have been established in each of their names.
A second scholarship recognizing Glass was set up by the Conejo Youth Basketball Assn. And the school's Associated Student Government, of which Johnson was a representative, created a "Most Spirited" award in her honor. Johnson's father, Dane, said the outpouring of support from students and faculty members has helped him through a difficult time. "I'm overwhelmed by all the things that they've done."
Lauri Schakett, who vacationed with Johnson and played on the same Westlake teams, said she was proud to receive the first scholarship named for her best friend.
"That was the biggest honor I've had in my life. To say I was anything like Nicole is such a compliment. I don't think I am, but I'm trying to be," she said. "If everyone were like her, this world would be a much better place."
Johnson was a peer minister for the confirmation program at St. Paschal Baylon Church in Thousand Oaks and was also involved with the teen ministry at Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village.
"She had an awesome relationship with God," Schakett said. "Everyone felt so close to her. She changed people's lives for the better."
In her speech to classmates, class President Samantha Beal quoted from something Johnson wrote last summer.
"And finally, some words from our angel: 'Take chances. You'll wish you had later. Live a little more and fear a little less. You create your tomorrow, today.' "