PRINCETON — Roman McPherson never met a stranger, and it showed Tuesday when hundreds of people who loved him turned out to dedicate a tree and send their prayers up in helium balloons. They all remembered a smiling 19-year-old, filled with faith, who loved to laugh and lived easy.

Princeton Senior High School students and community members gathered on the school’s Stafford Drive lawn to pay tribute to the young man who died March 1 of injuries he sustained in a Feb. 28 crash just east of Princeton, and as they described Roman, they couldn’t help but smile themselves.

“Roman was outgoing. He loved to hang out with his friends, and he liked to ride his four-wheeler and motorcycle,” Roman’s girlfriend, Maryellen Hill, said, holding his baby sister, Kiersten tight as the balloon ceremony approached. “He just really liked to do normal guy stuff.”

Clarisse Davis and Ashley Smith said the Roman they would always remember was constantly happy, and Alex Bay recalled that he loved a good joke.

“He was always there for everybody,” Jessie Moses said, and the four friends had no doubt that Roman would have approved of the student memorial.

“He would have been here, one of the first ones here for anyone else,” one said, and the rest quickly agreed.

While Tuesday served as a celebration of Roman’s life, it was also a solid reminder that a friend, a football teammate and a son was gone. That was difficult for some of the students to cope with as the balloons rose into the blue sky.

“I went to school with him since we were in kindergarten,” PSHS senior Winston Hubbard said, smiling as he explained that one of Roman’s most-prized possessions was his maroon Ford F150. “He loved that truck. Really, he just liked to have fun, hang out, ride his four-wheeler and have good times.”

His best friend, Craig Smith, said he already missed the “late nights down in the Schewel’s parking lot, just talking, pretty much about life.”

Through tears, Roman’s mom, Tammy Davis, took the microphone during Tuesday’s dedication to remind her son’s friends to learn from the mistake that cost his life.

Roman was reportedly driving his friend’s 2003 Honda Civic Coupe on U.S. 460 early Feb. 28 when he lost control and the car overturned just past mile marker 18 east of Princeton. Investigators with the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department reported drugs or alcohol were not factors in the crash, but that excessive speed was. Investigation at the scene indicated the car was traveling in excess of 89 miles per hour at the time of the single-vehicle wreck.

Roman and two other passengers inside the car were ejected as it rolled.

Amber Nicole Sweeney, 19, of Princeton, died just hours after the accident. Roman died on March 1.

Mason Jack Duncan, 18, of Bluefield, was hospitalized and survived the crash. The extent of his injuries or his condition were unknown this week.

Ashley B. James, 18, of Princeton, was the only one of the teens wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash, and she was also the only one to escape without critical injuries. Investigators attribute that to the fact that she was not ejected during the collision.

And, that’s the message Davis wants her son’s friends to remember every time they get into a car.

Davis said she had also thought a lot about the accident that had claimed the son she had called hers since he was 3 days old.

“The more I think about that terrible morning, the more I conclude that if he had just taken the time to buckle his seat belt, he would be here with us today,” she said.

As she struggled through emotion and smiled through tears, she asked the students that surrounded her to listen to the pain that filled her voice.

“We must learn from this mistake, or otherwise, Roman’s death will have been in vain,” she said. “ ... Use my pain to change your habits.”

Calling it Roman’s Rule, she charged all the students with buckling up every time they plan to move an inch in a vehicle.

As she prepared to release her balloon and dedicate a red maple in her son’s honor, Davis again pleaded with the students to remember Roman.

“Remember the Roman that you knew that loved life and loved his friends,” she said.

Then, wearing the last Tiger football jersey Roman ever wore, the No. 8, she asked the students to count to eight, then release their balloons.

“I can’t describe how it makes me feel late at night, or how it makes Roman’s granny feel, to know that all you kids cared about Roman. He was as arefree as they come,” she said. “I know that I’m always going to wake up in the morning and remember Roman. My fear is that you all won’t.”

After the dedication, Davis and a few of Roman’s special friends walked to the tree that carried his picture and a blue and white ribbon, the PSHS colors. The laminated photo started small, but Davis pledged the picture would get bigger with the tree.

“He was just such a kind person. He could fit in with the skateboarders, the football team, anybody. He was just such a blessing from Day 1,” Davis said.

Family friend Omar Aboulhosn laughed as he said, “Eating was probably his favorite thing — that, and Maryellen.”

Davis said she planned the day in honor of her son, but she emphasized that her heart was with the families of Amber Sweeney and the other teens involved in the crash Feb. 28.

“I’m very mindful of what they’re going through, and I think about them all the time,” she said.

— Contact Tammie Toler at ttoler@ptonline.net.

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