GROTON — Local hero Sgt. William Woitowicz was remembered recently as part of the eighth annual Hoops on Fire Basketball Tournament renamed this year in his honor at the William Woitowicz Three on Three Tournament.
“I was the president of the Groton-Dunstable basketball program for 15 years,” recalled Joseph Moore of the tourney’s beginnings. “We came up with the idea for the tournament and put it all together as a fundraiser for the program. Anybody can get a team together from third-graders to adults and enter them in the contest.”
Moore said that the tournament has been such a success over the years that it has grown until over 110 teams participated in the latest edition which needed to be held at two different venues including Lawrence Academy and the Groton-Dunstable High School gym.
But this year’s contest also had a personal meaning for Moore.
“Billy passed away on June 7, 2011 and we decided to rename the tournament after him,” said Moore of changing the name of the annual event to honor Woitowicz. “It had been called the Hoops on Fire Tournament. After Billy died, I went to the board and asked if it could be renamed the Sgt. William Woitowicz Three on Three Tournament. His mother and my wife were best friends and our kids were all best friends too. In fact, the Woitowicz’s were the first people we met when we moved to town. Billy was very close to us. He was over our house a lot and when he died, his mom and dad asked me to do the eulogy at his funeral.”
Woitowicz, a graduate of Groton-Dunstable High School, was killed in action while deployed to Afghanistan.
But in addition to being named after him, this year’s tournament, which was held the weekend of March 17, also included a special presentation by local artist Gina Johnson in conjunction with the Blue Star Mothers organization, of a pair of hand drawn portraits of Woitowicz.
“Gina and the Blue Star Mothers found the Woitowicz family because they do things with fallen soldiers and connected with them,” said Moore. “They found out about the tournament and asked to present the portraits to the family then.”
Moore said the presentation became even more personal for the family when, in addition to a straight portrait of their son, the artist also presented them with a drawing based on a favorite photograph of Woitowicz’s showing him in a sitting position, in full combat gear, as he looks out over a valley in Afghanistan
“It made him look like a dedicated soldier,” said Moore of the photograph. “It’s what he wanted to do. The Woitowicz’s loved the drawing. It was a very emotional moment for them. It was a very, very nice thing that Gina and the others did.”
Johnson has dedicated the last five years of her life to the memory of the state’s fallen heroes, drawing their portraits first for herself and then following an exhibit at the state house, for the soldiers’ families.
“What started me on this journey were articles I read about parents of fallen soldiers saying that the worst possible day of their lives would come if their son or daughter was forgotten,” explained Johnson, a resident of Woburn. “Then one night, I had a dream. It was about our community, our neighbors, all those who went to war because they thought it was the right thing to do, because it was their patriotic duty. And they weren’t going off to fight for their own families but for the entire nation. It was then that I decided that if I could put a face to every name, people would look at them and see a real person rather than just a name on a list of the dead. These soldiers would never be forgotten. You look at the faces of these soldiers and they just etch themselves into your heart.”
Working in pencil, Johnson said she has so far drawn more than 157 portraits of fallen soldiers from Massachusetts alone.
“I came from a family of eight and my mother’s side of the family was artistic,” continued Johnson. “Out of the eight of us children, it was the four girls who got the art talent. Since I was young, I always shared my art. I started volunteering at a young age because I always believed that volunteering was not hard work, it’s heart work. There’s no better feeling you can get doing what I do if you were being paid for it. It’s what I can do with the gift I was given.”
Following her state house display, Johnson met Blue Star Mothers member Rose Annese who began to connect her with the parents of the soldiers whose portraits she was already creating.
“Rose called the Woitowicz family and asked if I could come to their home to present them with my portrait,” said Johnson. “But they suggested that the presentation be done at the tournament. It was felt that because the community had given them so much, they wanted to share the experience with them. Kevin and Rosemary were absolutely the sweetest.”
In addition to the presentation of Johnson’s portraits, the tournament also featured its own “Spirit of Billy Award.”
“It’s awarded to the player who most reflected Billy’s positive qualities of always smiling; keeping a happy, positive outlook; and who is nice to everyone,” said Moore. “This year’s winner was Stacia Twomey.”
Also for the first time this year, Moore said that a scholarship fund established in Billy’s name and to which some of the money raised by the tournament was to be contributed, would be giving out its first awards this year.
For those interested in making a donation to the fund, go to http://www.billywo.org/ To find out more about Gina Johnson and view samples of her work, check out email@example.com, finally, for more information on the Blue Star Mothers organization, visit http://www.bluestarmothers.org/history.