Leadership and laughter: Life of Naval Academy midshipman celebrated
WASHINGTON - Those who knew Justin Zemser best - his coach, friends and rabbi - described him as a driven young man who loved to make others laugh and who was a natural leader.
"They called him Z - I don't know many other people who can go by one letter and get away with it," said Rabbi Lt. Josh Sherwin.
Zemser, 20 of Rockaway Beach, New York, was among those killed when an Amtrak trained derailed in Philadelphia Tuesday night. He was a sophomore at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. There, he was a member of the Jewish Midshipman Club, for which he was to be vice president next year, and a member of the sprint football team.
During a club trip to Israel this spring, Zemser forgot to bring a change purse to carry the small coins that are common in Israel. He ended up using a bright, floral Vera Bradley coin purse, proudly attaching it to the outside of his backpack coupled with a "weird" hat, Sherwin recounted.
"That was him. He was out there making people smile, making people laugh. Representing who he was. Being active Jewishly. Working out. Driving people to be their best. That'll be a huge loss to the Jewish Midshipman Club, to the brigade, to our family," Sherwin said.
Zemser's football coach, Maj. Kavan Lake, said he expected that Zemser would want to become a Navy Seal.
Members of the sprint football team are typically smaller than the average football player and have a chip on their shoulder that pushes them to work harder. Many go on to become Marines or to join the elite Seal squads.
"Justin was no different," Lake said.
His friends said they always worked hard in the gym because they knew Zemser would spend more time lifting or running.
"Forever, I'm just going to think, 'What would Justin do'," one of them said.
Naval Academy officials pointed to Zemser's leadership, saying he had returned to the school's campus this week to help run an intense training day for freshman. The test begins at 3 a.m. and lasts all day.
He was returning home when the speeding train derailed, killing six others and injuring more than 200 people on board.