Pop Culture & The Meaning of Life

Will Norton & The Light

I’m not really into reposting my old stuff but my top post of this year and all-time comes from this past June when I told the story of Will Norton whose amazing life was cut short by the Joplin tornado. I’ve been thinking about Will’s family this week and the pain of empty spaces around the holidays.

There’s a singer I like named TobyMac who’s been singing a song for a long time called In The Light. Will’s story changes lives because he lived in the Light. I hope you’ll take a minute to read this story, especially if you’ve never seen it. Then go look at the beautiful monument that the Norton’s had placed last month in tribute to their Willdabeast.


On May 22, a devastating tornado hit Joplin, Missouri. Millions of people now know the story of Will Norton, the 18 year old who could not survive the storm that struck as he drove home from his high school graduation service.

The storm ripped him from his vehicle even as his father in the passenger seat struggled to hold him. A cell phone and graduation cap were the only thing found until Will’s body was discovered a few days later. He was reportedly reciting Scripture in those final moments. But the story goes deeper.

I first heard about Will through Amy, one of my original blogging acquaintances. Her family survived the deadly tornado despite harrowing conditions that she recounted in a powerful way. Her description of the town in the days following the tragedy will shake you.

I learned about the discovery of Will’s body when I came across a link Amy put on Facebook. She only added “What an amazing life. Thinking today about Will’s family and friends.” The search for the high school grad had come to an unhappy end, but Amy linked to a video called “50” by Will Norton. I got choked up when I watched it, kind of like the way I feel now as I write this.

What an amazing life, passionate and full in such a short time.

Will drew thousands of subscribers to his YouTube channel and also used Twitter. His final tweet from the day he died simply said, “I’m graduating today!”

As the sad irony of that statement sunk in I scanned down the page and was shocked at what I saw. His second to last tweet pierced me as chills cascaded along my back. The message read:

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Matthew 24:36

I froze. Things like that just don’t happen.

I searched on and found Will’s Tmblr page. A variety of images and words filled the page from months of random postings. He bubbled over with excitement after getting accepted to Chapman University in California for their exclusive film and media arts program.

And then I came to this senior photo taken in late 2010 and posted by Will:

Given the circumstances surrounding his death, I find this picture almost impossible. My heart felt thick in my chest, and I couldn’t stop thinking about this young man.

When a tragedy like the events in Joplin strikes, we burn with questions. Our human understanding will never figure out the answers no matter how much we struggle to understand all those ‘why’ questions.

Think of the work to be done. Joplin faces so much rebuilding. Think of families like Will’s who will never go back to normal again. You can never go back after a disaster like that.

Sometimes the best we can do is try to find some beauty in the storm. The heart and words of Amy who literally lived to tell the story contained beauty. The care of Ellie and her family at The Gig also struck me. They’ve raised money for a great guy named Mark who also lost everything.

And there was a lot of beauty in the life of Will Norton, a guy I can’t wait to meet someday. Less than a month before he died he put this out on Twitter:

“In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” John 1:4

This world is sometimes filled with darkness as black as the terrible skies over Joplin that day. We’ve got to find the light. Not only did Will discover the light for himself, but even now in death his time here shines for the rest of us to see.

Watch that video Amy passed along about 50 things Will had already done in his life. What a full life he lived in such a short time. Then let your mind work over the thoughts and questions that will inevitably come.

Let’s take on the challenge to live lives that are full and meaningful. We can determine to make an impact on others in the way that Will and the folks of Joplin have shown. Find the light. Be the light.


Visit the Will Norton Page on Facebook to learn more about how you can honor Will, celebrate his life, and contribute to the ongoing rebuilding efforts in Joplin.


If you are struggling with loss or grief or emptiness during this holiday season, know that you are loved and that darkness can’t exist in the presence of light. There are people in this blogging community who care about you and know how to listen.

December 27, 2011 - Posted by | Life, Religion


  1. I had not read this piece the first time around, and I feel like I missed out on something special. You’ve inspired me to try and help whatever way I can. Thanks for the repost.

    Comment by Howlin' Mad Heather | December 27, 2011 | Reply

    • Glad you caught it this time Heather. Thanks.

      Comment by educlaytion | December 27, 2011 | Reply

  2. This is indeed hard to come to terms with. That said, I like your perspective on the situation, and that you’re bringing awareness to the family’s reaction as well as the insight that Will had in his final days. Thanks for shedding light on this.

    Comment by Stephen Haggerty | December 27, 2011 | Reply

    • Thanks for reading and thinking about it Stephen.

      Comment by educlaytion | December 27, 2011 | Reply

  3. You’re a good man.

    Comment by Leanne Shirtliffe | December 27, 2011 | Reply

  4. This is no less powerful than the first time I read it – thank you for reposting it, my friend. Will’s message – his light – are so important, especially at this time of year, when so many are missing a loved one.

    Comment by Liz McLennan | December 28, 2011 | Reply

    • I know it Liz. I was crumbling while rereading it today. Thanks.

      Comment by educlaytion | December 28, 2011 | Reply

  5. It still gives me goosebumps.

    Comment by Meet the Buttrams | December 28, 2011 | Reply

  6. I was moved the first time I read this,and I understand why this story had no competition for your best of the year. Dealing with loss over the holidays is weird. The first year is almost torturously easy because you’re simply numb that your loved one just isn’t there no matter how you spin it. The next year is just more real, which brings something new to the table. I have had many moments this past year where I was fine and then I’m bawling. The loss hits at odd times. I know that there is a very caring community here and I pull strength from the humor and words of wisdom. I pray that Will’s family is blessed by others in the same subtle and constant way. You are a kind soul and I do appreciate your writings and you in general! (no maniacal laugh)

    Comment by Jess | December 29, 2011 | Reply

    • Thanks for that Jess. Holidays, especially Christmas I think, are amplifiers. They can make a happy moment really joyous but can also take sadness to a darker place. That’s why I like thinking about Light so much.

      Comment by educlaytion | December 29, 2011 | Reply

  7. I saw a comment that Amy made about this post and decided I needed to read it for myself. My daughter and Will were very good friends, and thus over the years we came to know him well, too. My heart aches every time I think of him or read something like this. His family is strong, but it is still so devastating to lose someone you love so much. It does help, however, to realize that these things are simply not in our hands – there is a higher Being who loves us and understands so much better than we do what life is all about. I can say with absolute certainty that Will Norton was one of the most amazing people I have ever met – not matter how young or old. I also can tell you that his life and untimely death have motivated so many of us to look at life with a new perspective. I hope to make EVERY day count – it’s what Will would want us to do. Thank you for sharing his story – it is just so hard sometimes for those of us who knew him so well to re-live those days of uncertainty and pain. May we share his legacy by living each day to its fullest and by helping others do the same.

    Comment by Dawn Sticklen | January 6, 2012 | Reply

  8. Whoa. Just whoa. I am speechless, but thank you for sharing this.

    Comment by kvetchmom | January 26, 2012 | Reply

  9. I hadn’t read this until now (thank you Renee for sharing the link). I’m glad I caught it this time.
    Not only is this an amazing tribute to a beautiful young life, cut short, but a poignant reminder to live each day to the fullest as the gift it truly is.
    Thank you for sharing, Clay.

    Comment by Elena Aitken | January 26, 2012 | Reply

    • I’m glad you found and read the story Elena.

      Comment by educlaytion | January 26, 2012 | Reply

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