James Gaddy, the charismatic fitness trainer on a mission to teach yoga and meditation to students in Camden and beyond, was remembered as a brother, best friend, teacher, coach, and inspiration.
Under a sky that grew increasingly spectacular as the sun began to set over Cooper River Park in Cherry Hill, more than 100 people on Saturday celebrated the life of a man whose death at age 34 stunned a community he had helped to create.
The young crowd of fitness enthusiasts, people of faith, colleagues, and volunteers who share Gaddy’s commitment to city kids hugged and swapped stories as votive candles began to glow in the deepening darkness.
“When I met him four or five years ago I thought, ‘This guy’s different,’” said Ed Wargus, a fitness coach who lives in Mount Laurel. “It was the way he commanded the room. That presence he had.”
Gaddy, who lived in Oaklyn, died Aug. 29 while vacationing near his childhood home in South Carolina. His body was discovered early that morning in a grassy area near a public walkway in Myrtle Beach; there were no signs of trauma and no cause of death has been determined.
While grief was never far from the surface during the three-hour gathering on the Cooper River deck, the mood was more familial than funereal. Gaddy’s older brother, Hunter, the owner of a construction firm, came up from North Carolina with two of his own children.
“James believed in every single person,” Hunter told the crowd. Gesturing toward the sky, which at that point held little remaining light, he said: “James is already in the place we’re all trying to get to. He’s saying ‘I’m here, I made it,’ and he’s expecting every single one of you not to forget to be great.”
Hunter and other speakers described Gaddy as someone selfless yet happy to be front and center. A person who could be loud but also cherished meditation and prayer. A leader whose energy, enthusiasm, and persuasive powers seemed inexhaustible.
Even after death, Gaddy continues to inspire the work of Project Little Warriors, the nonprofit he cofounded with Marialana “Ria” Curry in 2017. It offers free after-school yoga, meditation, and mindfulness instruction classes, as well as summer camps where young “scholars” (in Gaddy’s parlance) can enjoy swimming, writing journals under the trees, and yoga on the beach. The target audience is boys and girls of color who might otherwise have little access to yoga classes or summer camps.
“The future of Project Little Warriors is big and bright,” said Curry, 23, of Maple Shade. “We’re going to grow, we’re going to move into more schools, and we’re going to serve more students.”
“James’ words and his mission really echo with so many people who don’t want to let this [project] go,” she said. “The support from the community has been absolutely stunning.”
Said Haddonfield businesswoman Kathy Tully, a longtime Project Little Warriors funder: “So many people have been affected by James’ death. I’m here to support them and will continue to support the organization because there’s a lot more still to accomplish. Ria knows what Project Little Warriors is supposed to be, and she has wonderful people around her to help.”
Gaddy’s mother, Danielle Wagner, has been ailing and was unable to attend the event. During a telephone interview from her home in Clover, S.C., she recalled the youngest of her five children as “a ball of energy, everywhere, all the time” who could “light up a room” even as an infant.
“I was a single mom with five kids,” said Wagner. “I had to work five jobs to keep us going. Most of the time we were broke. Sometimes we had no food.”
“James was working from a very young age. He was always running little home businesses on the side. We were baking bread, and he sold it. He was very entrepreneurial.”
Despite their circumstances, Wagner said she and her children “all wanted to help the less fortunate.” She sees that aspiration reflected in Project Little Warriors, about which her son James was fiercely proud.
“He wanted to have impact,” said Wagner. “He got the notion to teach the kids, and I think that was God’s work.”
Although a man of faith, Gaddy also embraced life’s pleasures, speakers at the event said. He liked to drive fast, dress stylishly, dine out, and hang out. He had a way of becoming best friends quickly and keeping up such relationships over many years and at long distances.
Gaddy also was capable of great kindness. Brian Peyton, a manager at a California restaurant where Gaddy worked more than a decade ago, remembered him buying a memory card for a table of eight who had exhausted the capacity of their digital camera during a special occasion dinner.
Tierney Eifert, PLW’s clinical director, said Gaddy once defused a potentially humiliating encounter at a venue where the organization was to present a program.
After seeing “the blood drain from the face” of a woman who realized she had double-booked the event, Gaddy, who understandably could have responded with anger, instead said “it seems like you really need this,” and offered the double-booker a hug, Eifert said.
“We miss James [and his] ginormous hugs,” she said, adding that among her favorite James-isms was his standard message when saying goodbye: “Go love somebody today.”
While devastated by Gaddy’s death, friends and family are taking comfort in his legacy.
”I’m thrilled at all the lives James has touched,” said his mother. “I don’t think it stops here. I think it goes on and on and on.”