Last October, when David Elder was a freshman at Wharton High and a member of the school’s National Junior Reserve Officers Training Corp (NJROTC) program, he was participating in one of his first drill meets at Central High School in Brooksville, called the Iron Bear Challenge.
It was early and still wet outside, and Elder, as his friends in Wharton’s NJROTC call him, was participating in the tire flip event. David was a little too close to another team’s tire and when he slipped, the huge tractor tire struck his leg just below the knee and slid down to the ankle, breaking both bones in his leg.
“It was loud,” recalls Senior Chief Petty Officer (Ret.) David Ingalls, who is retired from the U.S. Navy and one of David’s instructors. “We knew it was a pretty bad break.”
With his leg broken in two places, he should have been in a lot of pain. But, Elder somehow was making everyone else laugh, acting like a hero being carried off on the stretcher. As they closed the doors to the ambulance, he was waving to everyone and “dabbing.”
“That’s when we really saw his personality,” says Ingalls. “David just had a lot of charisma.”
When students arrived at Wharton for the first day of school this year, Elder’s friends were told that he had passed away.
Just the day before, Elder, Connor Hale and a bunch of their friends helped lead freshman orientation at Wharton High for new students entering NJROTC.
After, the cadets went to the movies. The theater was empty, except for them, so whenever a song played between dialogue, David and Connor would put on sunglasses, jump up, and “dance like spazzes,” says Connor. That was typical of the kid he calls Elder, who “could make anyone laugh or smile.”
“He excelled above and beyond anything I expected,” says Jim Elder. “He was on the rifle team, drill team, color guard, everything. He did great at everything he tried.”
David even enjoyed uniform inspections, something many cadets dread. “He’d have me come out and inspect his uniform for lint and check his brass. I showed him how to shine his shoes. He was very methodical about proper appearance with his uniform.”
A week later, more than three dozen cadets from Wharton and other area schools, who had met Elder at NJROTC events, attended his memorial service.
“He was enthusiastic about being a young leader and had a lot of potential,” says Major Michael Beale, who is retired from the U.S. Marine Corps, and was another of David’s instructors. “For a young kid to impact so many people, you know he has unique character traits. People wanted to be around him, and he touched so many lives.”
“He was a model cadet,” adds Ingalls.
Jim says his son had aspirations to join the military. He was interested in aviation, but since he wore glasses, he knew that was a long shot. He also loved the water, and really loved sailing. NJROTC gave him the opportunity to attend Sail Academy, a training academy hosted by Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.
“He’s named after my dad, who is a retired U.S. Army paratrooper,” says Jim, who also served in the military. “David just thought his grandpa was the greatest thing walking on two feet. He always liked to hear Grandpa Dave stories.”
David grew up in Pinellas County, where his mom still lives. He had been living with his dad and last summer, after outgrowing the Civil Air Patrol program for middle school students, the pair decided to move to Tampa to find a high school with a good NJROTC program.
“I wanted him to be exposed to more things and set him up for success in the future.”
Jim says Wharton, “just kind of worked out at the time,” and that he couldn’t have been any happier with their choice.
“I’m thrilled because the instructors there do amazing things for the kids,” he says. “They are top notch and I can’t say enough good things. They are solid, good people there.”
While NJROTC was David’s “main thing,” says Jim, “he was a really well-rounded kid.”
David was a huge history buff who was particularly into World War II. He collected vintage firearms and military uniforms, and even taught himself some German, using Google Translate.
“We’d be at the gun shop and he’d give the guy behind the counter a quick history lesson,” Jim recalls. They enjoyed shooting together, too, he says. “We would go shooting all the time. He shot better than I did, which drove me crazy.”
Connor says he already misses the kid he considered one of his best friends. “This is my first time experiencing something like this,” he says. “It’s tough. I already miss his good nature. He was just such a good guy to be around.”
When he recalls his many fun times with David, he calls those times “shenanigans. He was a goofball and we would just laugh at everything dumb,” Connor says, like watching YouTube videos or repeating a phrase endlessly to drive other people crazy. “There’s a lot of stuff I thought we’d (still) do together, like going back to Sail Academy and doing (the American Cancer Society’s New Tampa) Relay for Life” again.
Jim says he and his son had a special relationship, especially since just the two of them lived together. “We called each other ‘bro,’ and I would tell him, ‘You’re my best bro.’”
Jim has met with Hailey Acierno’s parents, who started the foundation called Hailey’s Voice of Hope. “We’re going to try to collaborate and work together so that for her daughter and my son, neither of their names are forgotten,” he says. “We want to get the word out about suicide prevention so no other kid or parent has to go through this.”