Those who taught Jason Lang at Liberty High School remember the lessons they learned from him as much as the ones they dispensed.
The ever-cheerful demeanor. The honesty. The thoughtful gestures with no payment expected.
“You really had a hard time measuring whether or not he was having a bad day,” said Jeff Kelley, who taught Lang for two years in his American studies and government classes. “He was just a kid who seemed to enjoy life a lot.”
Lang, 20, died Feb. 26 when he was struck by an 18-wheeler on the side of the road. Lang, who was en route to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, for an EMT clinical training class, had stopped to assist at an accident scene.
The Iowa City native was a firefighter in West Memphis, a job he held for two months. He had previously been a volunteer with the Coralville Fire Department.
Kelly said writing a letter of recommendation for Lang to become an Eagle Scout reinforced how proud he was of his student’s character. He said news of Lang’s death felt like a punch to the gut. But after learning about the circumstances around his death, Kelley wasn’t surprised that it happened when Lang was helping someone else.
To honor his memory, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered flags to be flown at half-staff last Wednesday, the day of Lang’s burial at Ridgewood Cemetery in North Liberty.
More:Gov. Kim Reynolds orders flags to be flown at half-staff Wednesday to native Iowan firefighter killed in Arkansas
Lang was a 2020 graduate of Liberty High School, where Nathan Oswald was his biology teacher for one year.
Oswald described him as “hard-working, kind and selfless.”
Those traits went beyond the classroom, Oswald said. Lang’s family lived a couple of houses down from Oswald in Coralville, and Lang would mow Oswald’s grass during the football season, when Oswald was coaching.
“He was the kid who we had to like sneak the $20 bill into his mailbox, because he wouldn’t take it,” Oswald recalled.
Oswald spoke of Lang’s love of motorcycles, which he would show off to the neighborhood children. Lang studied automotive technology at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids.
One of Oswald’s favorite memories of Lang involved classwork he initially declined to complete. Lang was up front with his teacher about it.
“I gave him a homework assignment to read a section and answer some questions. And he’s like, ‘I’m not going to do this. I don’t want to do this. This isn’t very interesting to me,’” Oswald said. “And then I said, ‘OK, I appreciate the honesty.’”
The next day, however, Lang returned to the class with the homework assignment completed. He even helped Oswald set up the laboratory. That made an impression on his teacher.
Kelley reminisced about all the times Lang would enter his classroom, where music typically greeted students. Lang made a game out of trying to guess each song’s name or artist.
Kelley said he had the opportunity to see Lang grow into a mature young adult. He pointed to one example that occurred during Lang’s sophomore year.
“There was another student that had tried to entice him into a confrontation beyond verbal into a fight. And he avoided that,” Kelley said. “But he made a point that he wanted to come in the very next day, and wanted to explain to me what had happened, and even apologized. And he had done absolutely nothing wrong.”
That situation was an example of Lang’s character, Kelley said, but also a reminder of the impact that a student can have on a teacher.
“As an educator, sometimes you have this deeper connection with kids than what you realize,” Kelley said.
Lang’s interaction with Oswald’s children was something that Oswald will carry with him. He remembers Lang visiting the home, playing peekabo and other games with his children, then ages 2 and 4.
“There’s no doubt that he would’ve been a great dad from the way he was responsible with my kids,” Oswald said.
“And that’s something I’ll never forget more than anything else.”
Lang is survived by his parents, Joe and Sheryl Lang of Coralville; brother Nathaniel of Coralville; stepbrother Nicholas of Norwalk; grandfather Joe of Carlisle; aunt Debra Stewart of Allen, Texas; uncles and aunts Gary and Patti Hoos of Davenport, and Mac and Gwen McClinton of Graham, Washington; great-uncle and -aunt Ted and Connie Lang of Carlisle; and fiancée Kaitlin Bergan of Memphis, Tennessee.
His family asks that memorials be directed toward the Coralville Fire Department or Boy Scout Troop 216 in North Liberty.