‘He was a light’

Community members gather at vigil to remember 17-year-old Owen Cameron of Portsmouth

By Jim McGaw
Posted 4/3/24

PORTSMOUTH — Ava McDermott said a simple act of kindness was all it took for her to realize how special Owen Cameron was.

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‘He was a light’

Community members gather at vigil to remember 17-year-old Owen Cameron of Portsmouth


PORTSMOUTH — Ava McDermott said a simple act of kindness was all it took for her to realize how special Owen Cameron was.

In her first year on the Portsmouth High School Sailing Team, Ava experienced a wardrobe malfunction — a rip in her suit — that caused her a great deal of embarrassment.

Owen quickly came to her side.

“He didn’t make me feel judged at all for being upset, or scared, or nervous. I was really grateful, because he made sure I was OK and he comforted me until I calmed down,” said the PHS sophomore, fighting back tears as she spoke to more than 100 people who attended a vigil in Owen’s memory Saturday night at Channing Memorial Church in Newport.

Owen, a 17-year-old PHS junior who hoped to be an electrician, went missing for nearly four days after leaving his job at Anthony’s Seafood on Aquidneck Avenue in Middletown on foot at about 7:15 p.m. on Saturday, March 23. The last confirmed spotting of him was at Neon Marketplace at 535 East Main Road around 15 minutes later. 

Tragically, Middletown and Portsmouth police found his body partially submerged in water near the Newport State Airport on Wednesday morning, March 27. Police said no foul play was suspected, and the R.I. State Medical Examiner’s Office was investigating the cause of death.

Owen leaves his parents, Ginger and Ian Cameron, and his 12-year-old sister, Lydia. You can read his obituary here.

Ava summed up how many of the 20 or so people who spoke at Saturday’s 90-minute vigil felt about Owen: “He was a really good person despite being, well, different,” she said to laughs from the audience.

Owen was indeed different, they said. Just 5 feet, 5 inches tall and topping off at 120 pounds, he wore his signature long, strawberry blonde hair under a cap. He looked a little odd to some kids — until they got to know him.

Another PHS student, Morgan, recalled the day she entered a classroom full of boys — none of whom she knew. Owen, she said, “looked like a strange kid with his hat on and his long, stringy hair.”

But he was so nice to her, Morgan said, and kept pestering her about her favorite video games. Her nerves settled.

“I remember thinking, this kid doesn’t know anything about me, but he’s being so kind and making jokes,” Morgan said.

Kayleigh Caton first babysat Owen when he was 4, and recognized his charm and confidence even at a young age. One day they went to an arcade and who showed up but Charlie Day, the former Middletown resident and co-creator and star of the popular FX comedy, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” Owen didn’t know the show at the time — it’s definitely not for kids — but Caton told him she was a huge fan.

“So Owen walked right up to him and said, ‘What’s up? Are you from the show, ‘It’s Always Sunny?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but aren’t you a little young to be watching that?’”

Owen then introduced Day to Caton, and they posed for a picture.

Owen could sometimes be a handful, said Caton, describing all the times he would hide on her, but he was also brilliant. “He taught me how to play chess. He’d always win; he loved that,” Caton said.

She then used a phrase that was repeated by several others Saturday night: “He was a light,” Caton said. “He was so smart, and kind, and he loved his family. I love you, Owen.”

‘Different, but in a great way’

Alex, who once worked with Owen at Marshalls, couldn’t believe how quickly this quirky little teenager with the long hair made a name for himself in the store.

“I’ve never seen a new person be so liked by every single customer. He got so many customer compliments, just about his attitude, his charisma, everything. He was special,” Alex said.

Owen did some questionable things on the job — like pigging out on McDonald’s in the shoe room — but Alex said he always made people laugh.

“You could immediately tell that he was a carefree spirit,” said Alex, who struggled to maintain his composure during his tribute. “He didn’t care what you looked like — anything like that. He always had a smile on his face. What struck me about him was, ‘This kid’s different, but in a great way.’”

Anthony Iacono, owner of Affinity and Shanomet company, LLC, which offers sailing charters, once worked with Owen in teaching young kids how to sail.

“We volunteered together, taking children sailing. He was great, despite the fact we only had a 51-years-and-10-months difference between us,” Iacono said. “He was just a wonderful person to be around. I found him to be charming, honest, and a very sweet kid — smart. He was just great with the kids. He had a kind soul.”

Owen hustled a lot, Iacono said. As soon as he got off the boat, he’d head to his job at Easton’s Beach. Two sisters who worked with Owen at the beach talked about much they missed him — his sweetness, his great sense of humor, the big chains he’d wear, and even how he’d occasionally annoy them.

Jasmin, a PHS student, said Owen could do that sometimes. “He knew how to get under my skin. He would always tease me,” she said.

Although he was just kidding around, one day Owen realized he had taken the ribbing too far, she said. “He came into class one day and he brought me this huge, like really big tree. He apologized to me with this big maple tree. Later, he’d come to class every day asking me, ‘How’s the tree? How’s the tree?’”

Now, Jasmin said, she’ll always have a tree that symbolizes her late friend.

‘Same flesh and blood’

Several teenagers who spoke Saturday said they wish they had gotten to know Owen better. Brendan, a PHS student, recalled being in a physics class with him. “Owen was one of the first people to make me feel welcome to be there,” said Brendan, noting the two would often have “beat battles” and debate who the best rapper was.

He acknowledged, however, that because Owen was thought of as being a little different, Brendan didn’t get as close to him as much as he would have liked. 

“I let my pride and ego get in the way, because I wanted to be perceived in a certain way. But over the past few years, through personal experiences, I’ve learned we don’t have enough time to judge someone and put pre-conceived thoughts and opinions on them,” Brendan said. “Really enjoy the time you have with each other. Nobody’s too good for each other; we’re all created from the same flesh and blood.”

Aaliyah Turner felt the same way. She shared a class with Owen only once, as a freshmen. However, he always said hi to her in the hallway “with his big, cheesy smile.” Owen would often make fun of Aaliyah because she was such a grouch in the morning. 

“He was always respectful to me, despite our differences and despite our disagreements. He was very kind,” said Aaliyah, a licensed minister at Union Baptist Church in New Bedford who finished by singing a stirring version of “Amazing Grace.”

Cole Hughes, captain of the PHS sailing team, recalled Owen’s “immense” sailing talent. “He was so quick to pick up on all the things our coach teaches us,” he said.

Cole also shared a story that illustrated Owen’s singular nature. 

“One time I was sailing with him and there was a flock of geese in the water. Out from his pocket, he pulls a piece of bread — I don’t know why that was even in there,” recalled Cole, describing how Owen ripped up pieces and threw them into the water.

“He was a great friend and I will miss him dearly.”

‘Different perspective’

Perhaps the kindness Owen displayed to Ava McDermott was borne out of an earlier experience he had while on the sailing team. Scott Pakenham, the team’s coach, explained how the sailors wear special suits that cover everything except their hands and heads. 

“They protect you from the elements. If you don’t close the last two inches of the zipper, you’ll end up with about 20 gallons of water in your feet,” Pakenham said.

You can guess the rest: Owen didn’t zip up all the way and got loaded down with water after he had flipped his boat. After four people dragged him out of the water, however, Owen had a grin plastered on his face. He loved sailing.

“He kept pushing me — ‘Can we sail this summer, can we do something in the fall?’” Pakenham said.

Owen also taught his coach about the rules of school fund-raising — albeit after the fact.

“We finished practice last year and people from Sail Newport came down with a big tray of muffins and baked goods. Apparently they weren’t going to use them so they gave them to Owen and Tyler,” he said, referring to another member of the team.

The two boys, in a spirit of entrepreneurship, started selling the baked goods as a fund-raiser for the sailing team — without the coach’s knowledge. “They had signs all over school and they raised six dollars and 50 cents,” recalled Pakenham, who said administration later grilled him about where the $6.50 came from.

“And this is where I learned some of the fund-raising etiquette at school,” he said. “When you have a fund-raiser in school, there’s a lot of paperwork. Thanks to Owen, I now know that.”

Theresa Colantuono, the previous PHS sailing coach, had Owen when he was a freshman.

“Owen had a very bright light,” she said. “The best thing I remember about Owen is, when we’re coaching a team of young sailors you have to figure out who’s going to fit with who. That’s tricky sometimes, but Owen was just happy to be there and he’d be happy to sail with anyone.”

Before, after and during the vigil, dozens of friends came over to offer condolences and hugs to Owen’s mom, Ginger, who sat up front. Afterwards, she deferred to the others who spoke about her son, only to add, “He was just an amazing kid. He marched to his own beat.”

Celebration of life 

A celebration of Owen Cameron’s life will be held from 2-6 p.m. on Thursday, April 4, at OceanPointe Christian Church, 66 Valley Road, Middletown.

Ginger Cameron said the celebration will be similar to a wake, but there will be no viewing. Friends, family, and all who knew and loved Owen are invited to gather together to share stories and memories.

There will be light refreshments in the lobby area, and the upstairs game room will be open.

Owen Cameron, Portsmouth High School

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