Before responding to an accident that would ultimately claim his life, Ross Booker made a point to roll down the window of his tow truck, smile and wave to a childhood friend.
Whether it was a simple hello, a long friendship, volunteering in his community or sharing a joke with a teacher, Booker made everyone he came in contact with feel special.
It’s just the way he was—the 20 year-old always went of his way to let people know he cared.
The St. Joseph resident passed away on Sunday after sustaining injuries in an accident involving his tow truck on Saturday night in Champaign.
“(He’s) the best friend everyone should have at some point in their life,” Mallory Ames said about her friend.
Family friend Eliza Lewis agreed, describing Booker as a softy at heart.
“My favorite quality about Ross was his ability to love,” she said. “He loved his family, his friends and his community. When he loved, he loved with his whole heart.”
Brodie Landreth met Booker in their freshman agriculture class at St. Joseph-Ogden High School. That class sparked a seven-year friendship.
“Ross was everything you could possibly want in a friend,” Landreth said. “He was caring, outgoing, funny and a role model. He was someone who was always by your side, even if you were at a low point in your life.”
Landreth described Booker as a genuine person and a sweet soul.
“He was always so nice and always there for you,” Landreth said. “He always put his family and friends first.”
Audrey Short spent almost every day this past summer with Booker and Landreth and said she will cherish the memories of her friend.
“Booker was the friend that would drop anything he was doing if his friends needed something,” Short said. “He had the sweetest soul and could never say no to helping his friends, family and even strangers.”
Various pople described Booker as having a servant’s soul, and evidence of that can be seen in his volunteering with the St. Joseph Stanton-Fire Protection District and in his everyday actions.
SJO Principal Gary Page said a few years ago Booker helped with the youth football camp at the high school. At the end of camp, Page’s wife Katie went to pick up their boys. Katie’s car battery had been acting up and when she picked up her children, her car wouldn’t start.
She asked if anyone had jumper cables.
“Ross overhears her asking, jumps up and says, ‘I gotcha,’” Page said. “He proceeds to pull up to Katie’s car in his old red pickup. Happily helps her get her car started and refuses to take a dime.”
Page said his wife remembered Booker’s huge smile, great manners and how he jumped in front of all the adults at the camp to help her.
“He not only went out of his way to help, but he was excited to help,” Page said. “It left a lasting impression on her. Ross’ servant heart and infectious smile left a similar impression on nearly everyone that met him.”
St. Joseph-Stanton Fire Chief Josh Reese said Booker’s desire to serve was what motivated him to join the fire protection district.
“He always has the look of determination,” Reese said. “He wasn’t ever going to let anything stand in his way of being able to help. Even on medical calls where he hadn’t had any training yet, he always wanted to step in and try to help in some way. He was caring and always worried and looked out for others.”
Reese said Booker was always wanting to make a difference.
“He had huge potential to make a great firefighter as he was always looking to learn and take care of people,” Reese said. “That’s what this job is all about.”
Landreth said Booker would be remembered for not only his kindness and his many friendships but also his work ethic, saying his friend was always working on a wood-working project, his trucks and their transmissions and even helping friends out at their workplaces.
Ames and Lewis agreed.
“I would describe him as a hardworking, selfless man with the hands and soul of a 50-year-old,” Lewis said.
Booker’s hands bared the scars of his many wood-working projects he started creating when he was 8 years old. His projects won at the Champaign County Fair numerous times and took him to the Illinois State Fair. He created coffee tables, buffets, dressers, end tables, beds and much more.
SJO agriculture teacher and FFA Advisor Katie Duitsman said she first met Ross when his older brother, Anthony, was in FFA. Ross would tag along and wanted to help in anyway he could.
“The high school FFA girls always called him ‘Little Book,’” Duitsman said. “I knew from our first encounter that he was going to flourish and thrive as an FFA member when he entered high school.”
Duitsman said the day Ross’ FFA jacket arrived was a proud day for him. Duitsman said the day is always special for Greenhand FFA members, but especially for kids who had an older sibling go through the program.
“He was so excited to put it on and he wore it for the entire Ag class, beaming from ear to ear,” Duitsman said. “Ross admired his older brother more than anyone in the world. Almost daily I heard him say that he wanted to get his State and American FFA Degree, just like Anthony.”
Duitsman said Ross worked tirelessly at multiple jobs and at his woodworking to receive his FFA degrees.
This past fall, Ross was able to walk across the stage at the National FFA Convention and receive the highest honor bestowed to an FFA member, the American FFA Degree.
“Ross was a dreamer and a goal setter,” Duitsman said. “He was one of the most hard-working people I have ever met.”
Duitsman said while Ross loved woodworking, it was the time spent with his family he cherished the most.
“I think he enjoyed spending that bonding time with his brother and his dad,” she said. “He made the most exquisite pieces of furniture for his 4-H and FFA projects. Walking through his parents’ house, you can see all of the love and hard work they put into woodworking as a family.”
His success with his woodworking caused a friendly competition to grow between Ross and Mallory Ames. The two 4-H and FFA members routinely competed against each other at competitions.
“Yet every single time, Ross’s dedication and hard work to his love for agriculture and interest in beating me pushed him to win,” Ames said.
Mallory’s mother, Becky, said she would always remember the friendly competition her daughter and Ross shared.
He would always come over and hug me, smile and say, ‘Good morning Mama Ames,’ she said. “He was a wonderful young man and was a true friend.”
Duitsman agreed Ross would be remembered for his kindness.
“Ross was also one of the most kind-hearted and caring individuals,” she said. “He was the first one there and the last one to leave. He never complained about putting in the work to make things happen, whether it be setting up tables, cleaning up after a petting zoo or even carrying my bags around at FFA events when I was pregnant.”
Ames said she thinks her friend was an old soul with a heart of gold.
“He always put a smile on my face and gave the greatest hugs,” she said. “He was always there and willing to lend a helping hand to anyone who needed it, without ever asking or waiting to be asked. He truly was my one in a million best friend.”
His dedication to FFA was even evident to those not involved in the program.
Ross joined the SJO football team during his senior year.
“He was respectful, strong and was physically mature,” SJO football coach Shawn Skinner said. “Soft-spoken and not exactly confident in himself, he assured me that he would give our program everything he had, unless he had FFA requirements and then he would need to make sure he could have permission to be at FFA events when it was needed.”
Skinner assured him that would not be a problem.
When Skinner had Ross as a Consumers Education student, one of the last assignments the class was given before the COVID-19 lockdown was to conduct a mock interview, video tape it and submit it. The assignment fell during a hectic FFA week for Ross, where he was out of school a lot for competitions and events. On the day the assignment was due, Skinner received a text from his player.
Ross wanted say he was sorry he was texting because it had nothing to do with football and that because he was busy with FFA work he hadn’t done the interview yet, but he was not skipping the assignment and was going to take a late grade. He apologized that he had not turned the assignment in on time, Skinner said.
“That was Ross,” Skinner said. “He was mature and responsible and just a great young man. Everyone was better that was fortunate to have been in his presence. We are missing something special now that he’s gone. But we were lucky we had him while we did.”
Ross also worked hard in the classroom.
SJO math teacher Kiel Duval said while math wasn’t Ross’ favorite subject, he was dedicated to conquering the subject and would come in before and after school to get extra help if he needed it.
“You knew he would be the kid that any business would hire because he would do anything for anyone and would work as hard as he could on it,” Duval said. “Outstanding kid would be an understatement for Ross.”
SJO teacher Jennifer Brooks agreed. She said as a freshman, Ross was quiet and shy, mainly because SJO was so much larger than Prairieview-Ogden, where he attended grade school.
“What I remember most about Ross is that he could light up a room with his smile,” she said. “He was such a genuinely nice young man and was very passionate about FFA and his family. I had the privilege of watching Ross mature into a successful young man by the time he graduated SJO. By Ross’s senior year, he was no longer that quiet, shy boy.”
Brooks said Ross excelled in his classes, was a leader in FFA and was elected to Homecoming Court his senior year.
“He was well liked by all his peers,” she said. “Ross was definitely one of the good guys and was taken way too soon.”
Skinner agreed, calling Ross a great young man.
“Something that you hear from time to time in coaching is the phrase, ‘Leave it better than you found it,’ Skinner said. “As I have thought back on Ross, that is what I keep thinking of. No matter what Ross did, once he was a part of it — FFA, our football team, the local fire department, — it was simply better once Ross was committed to it.”
Today at 4:30 p.m. there will be a flag raising ceremony at Carle Hospital. The ceremony will take place at the North entrance of the Heart and Vascular unit off of Park street to honor Ross’ gift of organ donation. The public can attend.