Teen recalled for his love of guitar, plan to join Army

January 17, 2009|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,arin.gencer@baltsun.com

Conrad Angelo Utanes Jr., known as "CJ" to friends and family, had a passion for the guitar and the Beatles, military history and strategy games, and his trademark long hair, which he dubbed "my pride."

The Dulaney High School senior also had a goal - documented as far back as his third- and fifth-grade years - to join the U.S. Army.

That desire, no matter how much his parents balked, never changed.

"Dad, you know that I'm not cut out for college," Conrado G. Utanes recalled his son saying. But, CJ promised, he would do something to make his father proud.

Those were the last words that Mr. Utanes remembers hearing from his son as he dropped him off last Friday at the Timonium school, where they tapped fists before CJ got out of the car.

The next he heard of CJ was in a call that afternoon, informing him that his son was being taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center after being hit by a fellow student's car near Dulaney. The 17-year-old died Sunday evening.

"That was so hard - really hard," Mr. Utanes said. "I never expected that that was his destiny. ... I will miss him so much."

A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. today at the Roman Catholic Church of the Nativity, 20 E. Ridgely Road in Timonium. A reception in the Dulaney High cafeteria is scheduled to follow the burial, said Mr. Utanes and Patrick S. McCusker, the school principal.

Mr. McCusker said plans were also under way for the school to recognize CJ.

"There will definitely be something to commemorate him here," he said.

CJ was "a nice kid," Mr. Utanes said, who lived simply, preferring his Dickies pants from Kmart to more upscale clothing. But he knew what he liked and wanted - and pursued those things with determination.

"If he really likes it, he will dig into it," his father said.

On a trip to New York, his father recalled, CJ insisted on visiting sites of significance to his beloved Beatles. Strawberry Fields in Central Park. Shea Stadium, where they performed one of their concerts. The apartment building where John Lennon was killed.

Once he had accomplished that, Mr. Utanes said, he had little interest in the museums and other sights the city had to offer.

CJ's long-held dream of joining the Army was paralleled by an interest in military history. As a student at Pot Spring Elementary, he continually checked out a book on the Civil War and Gen. George Custer - until the librarian told him he could no longer do so, Mr. Utanes said. As a teenager, he spent hours on weekends playing Warhammer, a fantasy battle game, assembling and painting the intricately detailed miniatures that made up his army. In an essay that he wrote, CJ mentioned his "very strange interest in World War Two and propaganda from that time period."

And then there was the hair.

"Everybody knew him by his long hair," said Mr. Utanes, who recalled that they regularly fought about it, until the father finally gave up.

CJ had the long locks cut the day before the accident, his father said, because he didn't want his Army recruiter to have any pleasure in performing the task. He was expecting to start military service this summer, and will be dressed in his Army uniform for the funeral, his father said.

"Serving his country was his biggest goal," said his mother, Marilu Penaflor, who added that her son was "a good, fun-loving boy - with a dream."

In his essay, CJ wrote that his hair was the thing he liked best about himself: "The worst things can happen in a day and I wouldn't care as long as my hair looks good."

"He was always trying to look sharp," said Brian Dickson, a guitar teacher at Dulaney, who recalled CJ coming in and checking out his appearance in a classroom mirror at times. Mr. Dickson said he would pick on him a little bit, pointing out that the long hair in his face kept him from even seeing his music.

Yet his enthusiasm for the class was evident, he said. "He was a great student. He worked pretty hard."

The teen was struck as he walked across Girdwood Road, and the investigation into the incident continues, said Bill Toohey, a county police spokesman. A preliminary report indicates the driver of the Ford Focus, Sarah J. Sernaker, 16, was not speeding, nor was there evidence that she was distracted, he said. "There's no indication she did anything wrong," he said.

Mr. Dickson said some of CJ's guitar classmates were planning to perform some Beatles tunes at the reception. The teen had been working with a partner on Queen's "You're My Best Friend," and Mr. Dickson said he would try to perform the song with that student.

Besides his parents, CJ is survived by his sisters, Angel, 16, and Alexis, 22 months; and his stepmother, Diana Utanes.

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