‘Someone that could be there for you, acknowledge you and lift you up’: Joshua Watson ’22 remembered for his grace, poise and charisma

A talented athlete and artist, Watson was a devoted friend, brother and son.

by Cassandra Montemayor Thomas | 10/18/22 10:50am

joshua-watson
Source: Courtesy of April Morrow

In his junior year of high school, Joshua Watson ’22 was preparing for a long-awaited trip to scuba dive in Belize when a basketball hit him in the face during a practice with his varsity team,  smashing and breaking his nose. Doctors advised him not to go on his trip — which was just days away — until they could schedule his surgery. Watson’s mother, April Morrow, said her son — ever determined and eager for an adventure — forwent treatment to make the trip.

For Morrow, the memory was typical of her son — a tenacious scholar, athlete, musician and cherished friend to many.

“Josh was a persistent child growing up — very determined, very focused,” Morrow said. “He was also very kind and thoughtful, willing to do anything for anybody.”

Watson died by suicide on Aug. 27 at his home in Carmel, Indiana, according to Morrow. He is survived by his mother, brother Christian Watson, and maternal grandparents David and Arline Morrow. Watson was on medical withdrawal for mental health from the College at the time of his death, Morrow said.

According to friends, Watson possessed a “rare” mixture of charisma and confidence while putting others around him at ease. Benjamin Hartwell ’22, who lived on the same floor as Watson in South Fayerweather Hall during their freshman year, said “gentle and poised” are the two words that best represent Watson. The pair met at a computer set-up during Orientation and bonded over “mutual confusion,” Hartwell said.

“He had this rare quality where people really wanted to like him,” Hartwell said. “Something about him was more than popular — he just had a magnetism to him without being arrogant. He was so nice to be around, just able to make you feel good.”

Hartwell added that one of the best parts of their friendship was how much they saw each other outside of school. Watson saved up money to fly to California, where Hartwell and other friends live, to visit multiple times.

“He had to save up to do that, but he would always make it happen,” Hartwell said. “He came out again to go skiing and even came out a different time to Arizona [where some friends were living for a term]. He was really committed to seeing friends.”

Jael Campbell ’22, a close friend of Watson since their freshman year, echoed Hartwell’s description of Watson’s charisma and warmth.

“He would always walk into a room and light it up,” Campbell said. “He [had] a very strong presence that just kind of draws you in with his aura …  He could get along with anyone and wasn’t judgmental at all.”

For Watson and Campbell, who lived together in Panarchy undergraduate society during the fall of 2021, music was a binding force that brought them together in venues big and small, Campbell said. At Panarchy, Watson would riff on the guitar he brought to campus, trying out new chords and songs with Campbell as his audience. He shared with Campbell his passion for Jimi Hendrix, a psychedelic artist Watson admired for his creativity and success as a Black musician. 

Campbell said that one of her favorite memories with Watson involved a summer road trip to New York City for a friend’s birthday and a concert series where they listened to live music every night. 

“He was an incredible, amazing person,” Campbell said. “[He is] definitely the best friend I’ll ever have in this life. And he is sorely missed.”

Morrow said that Watson’s relationship with music began at a young age, when she signed Watson up for piano lessons and his teacher reported Watson had naturally perfect pitch. According to Christian Watson, his brother’s love for playing and listening to music only grew over time, as he learned trumpet, saxophone, drums and guitar. Joshua introduced Christian Watson to artists they would both grow to love, such as Led Zeppelin. Joshua recommended that they cover the band’s song “Out on the Tiles” with equally strong drum and guitar parts, so both brothers could showcase their strengths.

The brothers’ living room jam sessions eventually merited expansion into a designated space, Christian Watson said, prompting the conversion of their garage into an informal music studio. Joshua went so far as to soundproof the garage wall, relying on his own engineering skills to complete the setup.

“He would figure out a lot of it on his own,” Christian Watson said. “He put a lot of thought into it, and it really worked out. It was kind of cool to be able to do that project with him.”

Christian Watson noted that while he was slightly older than Joshua — 364 days, to be exact — his younger brother frequently led the charge on projects and daunting adventures, often pushing him to try new things. In order to “nudge” his older brother to overcome his aversion for roller coasters, Joshua would insist that the two of them ride a specific roller coaster at the Indiana Beach amusement park 30 to 50 times, over and over again, on each visit. Over time, Christian Watson said that Joshua’s insistence helped him gain a new sense of confidence over his former fear. Eventually, the ride made them “giddy.”

“He always brought the sense of just ease,” Christian Watson said. “And [he] just made you feel like whatever you were doing, it was going to be alright, it wasn’t going to be a big deal. It would be something that we could get through.”

Joshua Watson’s inclination to help others extended to Hassan Ali ’22, who Watson advocated for in team deliberations when Ali tried out for club basketball as a senior. 

“Apparently they were gonna cut me and [Watson] was the person who was like ‘yeah, I got you Hassan, I talked to the guys and told them you’re good,’” Ali said. “That’s my guy right there.”

Watson played on the club basketball team throughout his time at Dartmouth, according to Ali, but his athletic prowess didn’t end at the basketball court. He was “pretty phenomenal” at any sport that he tried, according to Morrow, who noted that Watson helped lead his varsity basketball high school team to win their sectional championships their senior year. He also played football in middle school and worked as a swim instructor and lifeguard while in high school after having swam competitively when he was younger. Morrow said that Watson could have pursued competitive swimming over basketball, except that “he didn’t really like cold water.”

In attempting to describe Watson’s basketball skills, Hartwell struggled to find the right words. “Like smooth but better — I almost want to say sexy,” Hartwell said. “The way he played would make me very jealous, and I think it would for other people too.” 

Courtesy of April Morrow

Watson, a studio arts major, was also an accomplished artist in acrylic painting, metallurgy and sculpture, according to Morrow. She added that a sculpture he created during high school called “The Tree of Life” was permanently put on display in front of his alma mater University High School.

Morrow said that one of her favorite paintings from Watson was an unfinished portrait of an older man in a wool cap.

“It’s a very detailed acrylic painting, with a kind of weathered face bearing all the little details of the scars of life,” Morrow said. “It’s a beautiful painting from the standpoint of being a study of humanity, of life lived hard but lived in a purposeful way.”

Watson was familiar with life’s hardships, Morrow said. Towards the end of his life, he struggled with mental health, which, along with a leg injury, prompted him to take leave from Dartmouth during winter 2022 to recover. 

“He put so much such pressure on himself,” Morrow said. “The culture [at Dartmouth] can be very demanding, which was a bit of a blessing and curse for him, because he pushed himself in situations trying to meet people where they were at. I believe that caused him to fall apart a little bit. Between being a sensitive person and having a touch of anxiety, that anxiety was exacerbated at school.”

Morrow noted that her son’s sensitivity was reflected not only in his struggles with mental health, but also in his insights as a writer and scholar. Watson had considered majoring in English, Morrow said, and took classes such as ENGL 22, “The Rise of the Novel” in 2019, where he garnered attention from professor Alysia Garrison.

“Joshua was a brilliant young thinker, a wonderful contributor to our class discussions, a charismatic and sweet guy and a truly good person,” Garrison wrote in an email statement. “He possessed intelligences of so many kinds, from studio art to literature to culture to athletics to deep emotional understanding of other humans and the world.”

Watson’s writing capabilities were noticed at a younger age by his high school English teacher Kirstin Northenscold. Tasked with writing Watson’s letter of recommendation for college applications, Northenscold sampled from Watson’s writing to put his skills on full display — specifically, from an assignment in which students reflected on personal ideologies. Watson wrote about burying a dead rabbit he found in an essay that touched on the fragility of life and immortality.

“What I’ve gained from this is that it is okay to reminisce, but never to sulk. Our timeline is measured not by what we accomplish or establish (this will never save us) but rather how genuinely we live in the present,” Watson wrote. “That is, value being and only being, because you never know when the ants will arrive.”