Friends, family mourn loss of West senior

Logan Gisler, left; Maxwell Duke and Allison Garza play "Tears in Heaven" by Eric Clapton during the Robbie Villarreal Memorial Concert at Victoria West High School. Villarreal was killed Saturday morning while riding an all-terrain vehicle.

Logan Gisler, left; Maxwell Duke and Allison Garza play "Tears in Heaven" by Eric Clapton during the Robbie Villarreal Memorial Concert at Victoria West High School. Villarreal was killed Saturday morning while riding an all-terrain vehicle.   Ana Ramirez for The Victoria Advocate

A single, empty chair filled the audience with emotions and memories Tuesday as the fifth-period guitar class performed "Star of the County Down" on the Victoria West High School stage.

The students dedicated their annual spring concert to classmate Robbie Villarreal, who died Saturday.

"It was beautiful," said Pat Villarreal, Robbie's aunt. "Robbie was very special to us. It's just lovely to hear how he made an impact on other people's lives. These are some beautiful kids."

Villarreal, a Victoria West High School senior, died when the all-terrain vehicle he was riding crashed into a utility pole.

Guitar teacher Don Tharp said the students came up with the idea for the Robbie Villarreal Memorial Concert, and the faculty agreed because they thought it would help the healing process.

Robbie Villarreal was remembered by classmates who performed "Tears in Heaven" by Eric Clapton and a speech by his friend Chris Ceballos Jr., who sat next to him for two years.

Villarreal was different than any of Ceballos' other friends, he said.

After talking with Villarreal's family, Ceballos learned how his friend had looked up to him.

"I felt really surprised," the 18-year-old Victoria West High School junior said. "I've never had a friend like him before that looked up to me. We really did have a connection with each other."

The friends practiced guitar together almost every day for at least an hour.

"He did like music, and he did like playing the guitar, but I think he liked the camaraderie more," Pat Villarreal said. "Robbie loved his friends and wanted to be part of something. Overall, that's what it was."

Ceballos said sharing their passion for music together created a connection between them that can't be replaced.

"It was amazing," he said. "I enjoyed every single moment we shared together. It meant a lot to me. It felt like we were in a band together."

The friends had similar perspectives on life despite their differences, Ceballos said. They could talk about anything, and some of Ceballos' favorite memories are of them showing each other funny videos.

"There was something different about him when I first met him," he said.

It was Ceballos' idea to dedicate the concert to Villarreal.

"My heart told me to," he said. "I know how happy for the concert he was, and I remember him saying he was ready for it. I felt it's something I could do to make it feel like he was there still."

When it came to kick-boxing and taekwondo, Villarreal absorbed what he was taught like a sponge, said Jake Smith, 25, of Vanderbilt.

Smith met Villarreal at Victoria Karate Academy about three years ago. They trained together, and Smith saw the same potential in him that he saw in his older friends in the sport.

"He soaked it up like a sponge that was never wrung out," Smith said. "He had his priorities in line. I saw so much potential in him."

Villarreal made his way up to a purple belt in taekwondo, Smith said. While training with him in the same class, Smith saw how hardworking Villarreal was.

"He excelled because he would sit back, listen and take in all the information that he could," Smith said.

Cody Barker, 25, of Victoria, knew Villarreal for about four years, and was his kickboxing instructor about two years ago. Barker said he was one of his more highly ranked students.

"He caught on really quickly, anything you would show him, he would ... absorb it all," he said. "He was as smart as can be, and he wasn't afraid to ask questions."

After kick-boxing class, Villarreal would stay longer to help Barker clean up.

If people only knew one thing about Villarreal, Smith would want them to know that he was driven, he said.

"I will always remember him as a good kid," Smith said. "He had a good head on his shoulders, was analytical and had his eyes open. Just what you would expect with the definition of success."

Villarreal's family was emotional but grateful to be part of a night where many expressed what Robbie meant to them.

"I don't know why this happened. I don't know why he's not here," Pat Villarreal said. "But we are all so fortunate and blessed that we got to know him for 18 years. He was so different; he was special."



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