Homecoming king with Down syndrome dies at age 20

BY KATE SANTIC
ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS

ORLANDO — Travjuan “Bubba” Hunter — an exuberant, outgoing Florida teenager with Down syndrome who drew legions of Internet fans as the 2013 homecoming king at West Orange High School in Winter Garden — died Aug. 21 after a battle with pneumonia. He was 20.

Bubba Hunter and Semone Adkins were crowned homecoming King and Queen at West Orange High School on Oct. 11, 2013 in Winter Garden. Hunter died Aug. 21 after a battle with pneumonia. (STEPHEN M. DOWELL/ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS)
Bubba Hunter and Semone Adkins were crowned homecoming King and Queen at West Orange High School on Oct. 11, 2013 in Winter Garden. Hunter died Aug. 21 after a battle with pneumonia.
(STEPHEN M. DOWELL/ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS)

“Bubba was just full of life, and he passed that joy along to everyone he met,” said Amy Van Bergen, executive director of the Down Syndrome Association of Central Florida. “That pure joy you saw — riding in the homecoming parade, doing the talent show and dancing with his homecoming queen — I will never, ever forget those moments. I can picture him standing in the auditorium … throwing up his arms to the crowd and getting a standing ovation. It was magical.”

Hunter and his longtime friend, Semone Adkins, who also has Down syndrome, were named homecoming king and queen by an overwhelming student vote in October 2013. An Orlando Sentinel story about their preparation and coronation — Bubba grinning and waving wildly to the crowd — went viral, attracting tens of thousands of admirers from around the world and calls from CNN, People and Yahoo News.

An only child
Janice Morgan, Bubba’s mother, said her only child was born when she was 23 weeks’ pregnant and he weighed just under 3 pounds. He spent his first 58 days of life in the hospital, undergoing surgery for a heart defect and growing big and sturdy enough to go home.

Despite those difficulties, Hunter became a robust kid with a notoriously positive attitude and virtual fearlessness.

“He knows everybody, and he’ll talk to anybody,” Morgan said in 2013. “Ever since he was in preschool, he’s been like that. He would run up and kiss everybody. We worked on that forever, because he was about to get in trouble. I told him, ‘You can’t just love on everybody.’”

To replace kissing, Hunter eventually developed a trademark wave, often throwing both hands up in a salute of victory for no particular reason, other than that people seemed to like it. Everyone seemed to like him.

“Everybody in town knows Bubba,” Michelle Cavanzon, a teacher’s aide who worked with Hunter and Adkins, had said of her student. “I swear he could run for mayor — and probably win.”

Short lifespan for Blacks
Even Hayden Griffitts, the high school football team quarterback and a homecoming king contender himself, admitted he ended up voting for Hunter.

“He was a wonderful young man, and he was really loved by everyone, everywhere,” said Karen McNeil,  Adkins’ mother, who knew Hunter since he was in second grade. “He had this three-wheeled bicycle he rode all over the neighborhood, waving to everybody. You can’t imagine how much we are all going to miss him.”

But in the past year, she said, Hunter had been hospitalized several times, suffering from pneumonia, diabetes and what was thought to be heart issues.

Although the average lifespan for people with Down syndrome has increased in recent decades to age 60 — up from age 25 in 1983 — Van Bergen said it tends to be significantly shorter for African-Americans.

“One wonders if it’s due to diminished access to medical care or complications from other conditions,” she said. “About half of our babies with Down syndrome have some kind of heart problem.”

For all the limits of his life, though, Hunter managed to leave a considerable footprint.

“I think he helped change the way people look at individuals with Down syndrome,” McNeil said.

“He showed people that everyone is the same, no matter your color, your race, your nationality or your challenges. He taught us that a person is a person.”

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