When senior Charles Gómez Albarrán’s friends think about him, memories of lip syncing immediately come to mind. Junior Leah Rymer remembers him doing what he loved: singing and dancing with all he had during a performance with fellow SPARK mentors.
“In that moment I was like, ‘You don’t care about the world. But you care so much,’” she said. “‘You just care about being you, and making sure other people are just being them.’”
From his very first week on campus, Gómez performed at karaoke nights in Taylor Lounge. Assistant Director of the TRIO Program Laura Bush remembers Gómez and a friend doing an intricate lip sync of Drake’s “In My Feelings,” sitting Bush down on stage. He directed the words to her, crafting a long joke about Bush betraying the SPARK program by going to TRIO.
To be around Gómez was to hear him sing.
“Just like walking around campus you would hear him singing, or you would hear his loud laugh and you would know he was there and that’s really amazing, to have that presence, to always be known,” Rymer said.
Gómez passed away suddenly over spring break while at home in Chicago. He was slated to graduate in June, and had turned 22 in December.
In celebration, he had uploaded a cover of Taylor Swift’s “22” to his YouTube channel, “Chaswell Tunes,” with the description, “Here’s to a new era and an even better life.”
Associate Professor of English Gina Franco recalls that Gómez was a hands-on student who wasn’t afraid to stick his neck out during classroom discussions.
“He was someone who certainly suffered with the same, or maybe more, social anxiety as the rest of us but he thought of himself as an extrovert among introverts. Often writers are introverts, so he had the effect of bringing people out [of their shell],” Franco said.
Franco also bonded with Gómez through their shared Hispanic heritage. She recalled Gómez writing a course evaluation that asserted her class was the only one in the department where he saw his identity discussed.
“One of the first things that Charles brought into my life was just this sense of familiarity with culture and language,” Franco said. “He brightened my life in that sense.”
For Gómez’s father, José Gómez, it was crucial that his son understand his family’s heritage. The Gómez family would often go to Veracruz, Mexico to see relatives. For Gómez’s father, those trips were a special way to show him the beauty of his culture. He wanted his son to know he was just as much of an American as any other citizen, but that his Mexican heritage was important to stay connected with.
“I told him to be proud of his heritage. I told him there’s nothing to be ashamed of — being a Mexican, or Hispanic, to know that’s not a bad thing,” Jose Gómez said. “But I also reminded him, ‘you’re an American, you were born here.’”
Chicago, where Gómez was born, was a great love for him. Gómez’s birth story, however, caused a great deal of anxiety. While his mother was pregnant, she got into a car accident, smashed her collarbone and went into labor early.
“We were very worried, but he seemed to be fine. He was a very happy child, just fun to be around. He was very loving,” Jose Gómez said.
According to Gómez’s father, the two of them would often walk through the city together, stopping only to grab a slice of their favorite pizza or get ice-cream. Times they spent reading together and going to places like Starved Rock are memories keeping José Gómez going.
“[We had] a lot of fun together, that’s why I miss him a lot, I miss my son. I wish I could have him back, but God had other plans. I see it that way,” José Gómez said.
After the family ran into some financial issues, they had to move to Texas which greatly upset Charles. According to his father, there were times Charles had a lot of difficulty at Knox whether it be personal issues or academic, but Chicago had always felt like a safe-haven.
“I told him ‘listen I love Chicago, but as a family we couldn’t stay there anymore’ … He did have struggles in college. He didn’t like everything going on there. I told him ‘I’m still your father, if you need anything I can come to Knox,’” José Gómez said. “He did have fun in college. When he was working at the radio there, he was having a lot of fun with his friends,”
Charles was in Chicago at the time of his passing. Originally, Charles was going to fly to Texas, however he decided to stay in Chicago in order to hand out graduation invitations to his friends.
“I have a lot of memories dear to me. Mostly memories that I hold in my heart is the joy and the excitement he had wanting to graduate,” José Gómez said. “He was happy that all this hard effort was coming to a reality, all these years of working really hard, there was suffering involved and he was really happy. He was almost there.”
Gómez’s energy was the first thing Melissa Smith ’18 noticed about him when they moved into their first-year dorms three weeks before the rest of the campus.
“It was a great experience … living with Charles especially. He was a really great friend. He was always there when you needed him,” Smith said. “I loved his energy. You knew he was there. He would be singing, and dancing, and oh God his laugh.”
Seeing the outpouring of Facebook posts following Gómez’s passing was bitter-sweet for Smith.
“I saw so many people posting on Facebook, him mid-laugh, and I swear to God I could hear it,” Smith said.
One of things junior Katana Smith admired about Gómez was how kind he was to other people. Smith believes Gómez’s drive to help others is why he was so active on campus. Gómez was a TRIO member, Teacher’s Assistant, CTL tutor and SPARK mentor.
“He deeply understood the challenges many [low income students] face, not only because you have fewer financial issues, but your parents can’t provide the same support somebody’s parents could if they had gone to college,” [Katana] Smith said. “He really cared about the people who were in that position, he wanted to see those people succeed.”
Bush worked closely with Gómez during his four years at Knox. She met him on his first day on campus, and told him to apply to TRIO as he was eligible. By his junior year, he had been named TRIO Junior of the Year, served as the teaching assistant for Bush’s CTL 161 course and presented at a TRIO national conference.
Bush pointed to Gómez’s right-side brain as one of the reasons they worked so well together. She says he would always be prepared for class, ready with papers well before Bush even arrived in the classroom.
He was fiercely passionate about his SPARK mentees, always checking in and being an advocate for their own self-care.
“He was always asking, ‘What are you doing for you?’” Bush said.
Bush remembers nights when the SPARK mentors would get together to make dinner, and Gómez would take the reigns, making Mexican dishes and calling his mother throughout the process to make sure everything was the best it could be.
“He was always the one with the shopping list,” Bush said.
One particular night, the SPARK team planned a big dinner at the Gale House. When Bush arrived, Gómez explained to her that the blender had broken and pico de gallo had gone all over the kitchen. But he quickly dismissed it and got back to work to make a great dinner.
“In the face of crisis,” she said, “he recovered.”
Senior Savannah Sailors will remember Gómez as being a supportive friend that made time to listen to other people’s problems. She said Gómez wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after graduation but that he hoped it involved doing public good.
“All of his friends would tell you he was meant to do something really awesome for the world. Honestly, I feel like Charles was here to make a difference. Even though he didn’t maybe make the difference he thought he would, he did for the friends he had and the Knox community,” Sailors said.
Bush would go see Terpsichore Dance Collective shows with Gómez, and noted that sitting next to him was like sitting next to a whole audience. He would always cheer the loudest for his friends, from the moment they got on stage to the moment they left it.
“I think he brought that foundation of really valuing kindness and being supportive of everyone that you can be, whether you’re best friends or you hardly know them, just being there to be a support system in any way you can and listening to them,” Rymer said.
Randi Siegrist ‘18 met Gómez in one of Associate Professor of English Chad Simpson’s fiction workshops. The two bonded after Gómez sent her an email following a workshop where the class seemed to not understand Siegrist’s story. He offered words of encouragement and asked to see the story after it was edited, and the two began to hang out.
“He had a way of making everyone feel like the most important person,” Siegrist said. “… You were his priority. He was really good at showing you the truth about yourself, in good and bad ways, but always constructive.”
He could tell when something was wrong, and wanted to help. One night, Siegrist was texting Gómez about some trouble she was having, and he immediately came over to hang out. After talking for hours, with “Shark Tank” on for background noise, she went to drive him home. Instead, the two drove around for hours, talking even more, and listening to music, one of their shared passions.
“Even though he wasn’t the happiest of people, he wanted the world around him to be happy,” Siegrist said. “He wanted to be a light because he knew how dark it could get.”
Not only did Gómez perform at events, but also in his room, and on his YouTube Channel, where he posted covers of songs by singers like Selena Gomez.
Pop culture was another favorite of his, and he immersed himself deeply in it. Bush remembers getting emails from him with links to news regarding celebrities like Cardi B.
He also talked about music and celebrities on his WVKC show. He also talked about his own life, commenting in his last show about the stress of finals and upcoming graduation. In that same show, he talked about Jussie Smollett, racism, President Trump, religion and the LGBTQ+ community.
“We already live in a planet that is already falling apart so what’s the point of us human beings fighting and falling apart within ourselves?” Gómez asked. “… People already have different mindsets, different personalities, different points of view, different loves, so why aren’t we learning to just respect each other?”
Students and faculty such as Director of the Center for Intercultural Life Tianna Cervantez are currently working on creating a memorial service for Gómez at Knox. Rymer wants to make sure it fits him and his big personality appropriately.
Siegrist had plans with Gómez for the upcoming weeks. Since then, she’s been keeping their plans. This week she ate at Koreana, her favorite restaurant, “with” him, since they were supposed to.
She knows his memory will stay alive, though.
“I feel like he’s one of those people that’s going to live forever because he made such an impact on everyone he came into contact with, because he was that kind of person,” she said. “If you met Charles, you knew you met Charles.”
Lillie Chamberlin and Sam Jacobson contributed reporting to this story.