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J.P. Fitzmorris remembered

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Joseph P. Fitzmorris, lovingly called J.P. by his friends, will be remembered for his love for family and his quirky zest for life.

Fitzmorris was one of two Navy crewmen who died in a Navy helicopter crash on July 19 in the small Middle Eastern country of Oman. The crash is still under investigation, though hostile activity is not suspected.

The former Ruston High School football player moved to Ruston his freshman year of high school and found friends and family in the halls of RHS.

One of his best friends, Jeff McGehee, of Ruston, said that one of the most tragic things is how much Fitzmorris wanted a wife and children and then died shortly after getting married.

“He wanted more than anything to get married and have kids,” McGehee said. “He would have been a great dad, and he would tell you that, too. He told me before it was cool to say that, when we were 17.”

Fitzmorris married Jacqueline Gulla in February.

“J.P. met his wife, Jacquie, in August 2010 at a Zac Brown Band concert,” said Ruston resident Julie Graham, who served as Fitzmorris’ “adoptive” mother. “He was deployed shortly after they met, but they spoke almost every day in the six months he was gone. They were engaged as soon as he returned. We have never seen him happier than he was after he met her. … When they met, it’s like they found the piece of themselves that had always been missing.”

But, before he met Jacquie, everyone agreed that Fitzmorris relished in the love and support he found in family and friends.

“His appreciation of family made me understand what we have,” McGehee said.
While he was attending Ruston High School, Fitzmorris lived with his sister and brother-in-law Jolie and Judd Mahfouz.

Judd Mahfouz said that his family considered Fitzmorris family. At Fitzmorris’ funeral, there were 48 individuals from just the Mahfouz family.

“J.P. was just a member of our family from the moment when we got custody of him,” Mahfouz said. “He and his sister – Jolie, my wife – were very close, and he called when he was 14 and asked if he could come live with us. I said, ‘Sure, you’re family now.’”

Mahfouz said from the time Fitzmorris came to live with them, J.P. was like their son. He said even before this time, J.P. always had a good life.

“He had a family, he chose us and we chose him,” Judd Mahfouz said. “He had a very normal and loving childhood. He was very well adjusted and very well taken care of. He never wanted for anything.”

Mahfouz said that everyone who met Fitzmorris loved him dearly.
“He was just that sort of person,” Mahfouz said. “You couldn’t meet J.P. and not fall in love with him.”

Ruston residents Julie and Mark Graham, who took Fitzmorris into their lives and homes wholeheartedly when the Mahfouzes had moved for Judd’s job, met Fitzmorris through a church trip where he lost all of his money while he was heading down a ski slope. They helped him out, which led to a lifetime friendship.

“I always told J.P. that God gave him to us on a ski slope in Colorado,” Julie Graham said. “He ended up spending a good amount of time with us that week because he had to keep asking for money. After we got home, he was with us more and more. Then, the summer after his first year at NSU (Northwestern State University) he wanted to come home, so he lived with us. He lived with us the following summer, too, then he transferred to Louisiana Tech. Then came the holidays and family vacations and before we knew it, he was just ours.”

Fitzmorris graduated with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from Louisiana Tech University, and began studying for his master’s degree at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. However, he decided to join the Navy before completing his degree.

Judd Mahfouz said that he and Fitzmorris discussed that decision for quite a while.
“He didn’t take the easy route,” Mahfouz said. “With his degree he could have joined as an officer, but he chose to enlist. And, he enlisted for one of the most dangerous jobs in the Navy, while our country was at war. The life of an enlisted man is very hard. He knew every bit of that and we talked about it for a bit of time.”

“Some people said they weren’t surprised he joined, but I was,” McGehee said. “It wasn’t like he talked about it, he just did it. I think he did it to find direction. But, he would have been proud to die for his country, and he knew it was a possibility. He would have wanted to go out with a bang.”

Julie Graham and McGehee both said that having a loved one die serving the country really brings it to life.

“The saying goes that freedom isn’t free,” Julie Graham said. “J.P. died serving our country, and he paid the ultimate price for our freedom. As Americans, we must never take that freedom for granted. There are men and women who make sacrifices we can’t comprehend every single day just so we can have the privilege of living free in America. Words cannot express how proud of J.P. we are. We will never recover from our loss, but we know J.P. died a hero. He died serving his country and doing what he loved with his Navy brothers.”
Fitzmorris served as part of the Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 15 (HM-15). In his career, Fitzmorris was stationed in Pensacola, Fla.; Milton, Fla.; Corpus Christi, Texas; and Norfolk, Va.

“This was his third deployment to Bahrain,” Julie Graham said.

Hunter Smith, a teammate of Fitzmorris’ on the RHS football team, said he was a “stand-up guy.”

“He was just somebody that had a positive impact on everybody he met,” Smith said. “He was a high character guy. He’s definitely someone I’m proud to have called a friend.”
Smith said Fitzmorris gave 100 percent at whatever he was committed to doing, and he will fondly remember their time playing football together.

Tommy Reeder served as Fitzmorris’ football coach his senior year at RHS. Fitzmorris was a lineman and a kicker.

“He was just a great guy,” Reeder said. “He’d give his shirt off his back and do anything in the world to help you out.”

Reeder said Fitzmorris loved football.

“He really enjoyed playing the sport,” Reeder said.

Russell Moore, who was good friends with Fitzmorris when he first moved to Ruston, said Fitzmorris was eager to have good friends and new experiences when he moved into town. As such, Moore said he was able to take Fitzmorris hunting for the first time.

“After 10 minutes he said, ‘I think I see a deer,’” Moore said.

Moore advised him to wait a moment, but Fitzmorris had shot the deer and run down quickly.

“We found the deer and it was making this god-awful noise,” Moore said. “He had shot the deer in the butt, and I told him he would have to shoot it.”

Moore said Fitzmorris couldn’t bring himself to do it, so Moore’s father put the deer out of its misery.

Despite his first encounter with the sport, McGehee said Fitzmorris loved to hunt. In fact, McGehee said Fitzmorris would usually come home for hunting season, especially alligator season.

“He would always time his vacations so he could come home for hunting season and so he could be home with friends for the holidays,” McGehee said.

McGehee said Fitzmorris also loved Texas-country music, his Yellow Lab Drake, Louisiana State University football and, most of all, spending time with his family and friends.
McGehee said hunting season is when the loss will hit him the most.

“When it comes alligator season and he’s not around, or it’s Christmas and he’s not home — that’s going to be hard,” McGehee said.

Mark also said hunting season will be a constant reminder of the loss.

“I will miss hunting and fishing with him,” Mark Graham said. “I’ll miss the long talks on our drive to the camp, talking about life. I’ll miss picking up the phone and hearing him say, ‘Hey man, what’s up?’ I’ll miss him being impatient, pacing around the house, waiting on us to get ready to go someplace. I’ll miss watching him enjoy life.”

Julie Graham said there will be many things she will miss about Fitzmorris through this “indescribable” loss.

“I will miss his smile and the way he would hug me until my back popped,” Graham said. “I’ll miss him helping me cook dinner with his country music blaring. I’ll miss his endless supply of LSU clothes strewn all over his room. I’ll miss the way he loved his sisters. I’ll miss watching them play together on the floor and having to tell them not to play so rough. I’ll miss hearing him call me ‘JuJu’ and his big laugh when I did something clumsy. I’ll miss watching him love on his big lab, Drake. I’ll miss seeing him completely happy and in love with his wife, Jacquie, and I’ll miss seeing them raise a family together. I’ll miss his love for life and his endless quest for the next fun adventure.”

Judd Mahfouz said he and Jolie felt comforted knowing Fitzmorris is in heaven now.
“My wife said it best,” Judd Mahfouz said. “We gave him roots, and when it was time for him to leave the nest we gave him wings. Every parent does that for his child. The roots we gave him were in Ruston, and when he left his wings brought him back there. And now, God gave him angel’s wings, and that is comforting.”

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In his honor
Family and friends have established a scholarship fund to honor the memory of J.P. Fitzmorris. This scholarship will be awarded to a graduating senior from Ruston High School who shares characteristics and interests with Fitzmorris and plans to attend Louisiana State University. Contributions can be made at any branch of Community Trust Bank or via mail at J.P. Fitzmorris Memorial Fund, c/o Community Trust Bank, 1511 N. Trenton St., Ruston LA, 71270.

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