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‘Forever Joseph’: Baltimore gas explosion victim remembered for positivity, entrepreneurship

When Morgan State University students return to the campus this fall, one classmate — remembered by family and friends as a “striver” with the brightest of smiles and limitless potential — will not join them.

Joseph Graham Jr., 20, would have gone into his sophomore year poised for another semester of excellence had he not died in last week’s gas explosion in Northwest Baltimore, where he had spent the night at a friend’s house. His body was pulled from the wreckage of the Labyrinth Road blast, which also killed 61-year-old Lonnie Herriott.

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Joseph Graham Jr., 20, died Aug. 10 in a gas explosion in Northwest Baltimore, which ripped through several homes and killed one other person. His body was found in the rubble the next day.
Joseph Graham Jr., 20, died Aug. 10 in a gas explosion in Northwest Baltimore, which ripped through several homes and killed one other person. His body was found in the rubble the next day. (Courtesy of Isaac Graham)

In an instant, the explosion took away the future of the West Baltimore native, whose loved ones remembered him Wednesday as a role model, scholar and capable Renaissance man during his crowded wake and funeral service at Empowerment Temple AME.

“He was not scared of death because he lived in the moment,” said his girlfriend Melajah Thomas, standing next to his black casket. “Joseph came into my life and he turned it around. He showed me a love that I never saw before.”

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Thomas and other eulogizers said Graham had big dreams and chased them all, during his too-short life. He had even started a clothing line, Chase A Plate, with his friends and planned to turn it into an empire.

His sister, Madison, pledged to keep the brand alive in her big brother’s honor, vowing that people will come to recognize it all over the world.

“He doesn’t even know how many hearts he broke,” she said between sobs. “He was nothing but wonderful.”

Born to Chala and Joseph Graham Sr. on March 27, 2000, Joseph Jr. took an early fascination in nature and video games, family and friends recalled. But his interests and talents spanned fields. He took up baseball and football at Baltimore City College and graduated with an International Baccalaureate certificate before pursuing an electrical engineering degree at Morgan State.

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His friends and co-workers adored him.

Flowers adorn a chain-link fence at the recently cleared site of last week's gas explosion on Labyrinth Road.
Flowers adorn a chain-link fence at the recently cleared site of last week's gas explosion on Labyrinth Road. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

“He strived for everything he wanted, and everything he wanted, he got,” said Jowel Sutton, who worked with him at the University of Maryland-Midtown campus, where Graham served as a patient transporter. “He was like family. From the moment I met him, we just clicked.”

Alex Freeman, Morgan’s Student Government Association president, presented Graham’s family Wednesday with a certificate on behalf of the university. Freeman, who met Graham in high school, said his friend recently asked him to serve as his student mentor in Morgan State’s Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. School of Engineering.

“I cried tears of joy,” Freeman said of that special moment.

Graham never complained, friends and relatives said, and would reply frequently to questions with “I’m good.” He expressed himself through fashion, loved to travel and made YouTube videos with his friends where they reviewed music and joked around.

At home, Graham had close personal relationships with his father and mother as well as his sisters, Madison and Bailey. With his grandmother, Cynthia Young, he would often speak about God, and he had tattooed scripture on his body. Some affectionately referred to him as “JC,” short for Joseph Chase.

Both sisters, in their remarks, thanked their parents for blessing them with their goofy, treasured Joseph, who often announced his presence by busting into song as he descended the staircase in their house.

“There was never a dull moment with him,” Bailey Graham said. “He was my happy place. He was so funny.”

Graham said Joseph lives on through his legacy as a boundless self-starter — which is why she prefers saying “Forever Joseph” instead of “Rest in peace, Joseph.” Service attendees wore masks with both phrases printed.

The Aug. 10 explosion, which leveled multiple homes and injured at least seven other people, remains under investigation. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which serves the block of Labyrinth Road where the explosion hit, said last week that its equipment did not play a part in the blast.

Empowerment Temple Senior Pastor G.J. Barnes encouraged mourners not to dwell on the circumstances of the young man’s death but on the many accomplishments of his life.

Chala Graham, mother of Joseph Graham, speaks at Empowerment Temple AME about her son, who died in last week's gas explosion in Northwest Baltimore.

“His legacy will bless this family, this community, this country,” Barnes said. “Young black men will be inspired.”

Still, a blanket of grief enveloped the church service, which was filled with so many people that Graham’s grandmother, Marlene Graham, said she did not recognize everyone.

“Everything they said about him — that was all true,” she said after the ceremony concluded. “He was nothing but positive.”

Madison Graham said she will never forget her brother — “a kid with a plan” and her “first best friend” who worked so hard and touched so many.

“He was my protector,” she said. “I only wish I could’ve returned the favor.”

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