Ryan Hull, the interim director of Cannon Beach Academy, can clearly picture Kobe Braxton in his mind.

“He had an amazing smile that could melt you,” he said of the first grader. “He was an extraordinarily confident young man.”

Kobe was the type of kid who would try to hold doors open for others. He loved sports — especially basketball — and anything that let him stay active.

“He also had an inquisitive spirit, too, and he was pretty fun that way, but he knew how to read the situation,” Hull said. “He was a pretty clever young man.”

In many ways, Kobe mirrored his father, Michael Braxton, who “always had that big smile and a song in his heart,” said Paul Nofield, owner of the Driftwood Restaurant and Lounge in Cannon Beach.

Braxton, a manager at the Driftwood, died Nov. 9 after a three-car collision near Shelton, Washington. Kobe died Nov. 11 from injuries sustained in the crash.

Amber Hulbert, Michael’s fiancée and Kobe’s mother, and their daughter Kaia, a kindergartner at the academy, also were in the vehicle and sustained injuries. “The father passed immediately, and his son, my first grade student, Kobe Braxton, sustained injuries so that they had to put him into a medically induced coma,” Hull said.

The event left a scar on both the academy and the community at large.

‘A breath of fresh air’

Nofield met Michael Braxton in 2015 in Buckeye, Arizona, where he also has a home. Braxton was working at the Verrado Golf Club. They formed a friendship in the following years, spending time with one another’s families and playing golf together. In 2018, they started discussing the idea of Braxton coming to work for the company in Oregon, and the Braxton family visited that summer.

“Michael is definitely a professional hospitality person,” Nofield said. “He could read people and understand their ways just by looking.”

In fall 2020, Braxton and his family made the move to the Oregon Coast, and he assumed the manager role at the Driftwood.

“Michael fit right in,” Nofield said. “He took right away to the staff, and the staff took to him. … He was one of the greatest managers I ever met in the restaurant industry. He had the heart of hospitality. He also had a heart for people.”

For Patrick Nofield, president of Escape Lodging Co., which owns the Driftwood, Braxton was “a breath of fresh air.” When Braxton was hired, he sent Patrick a message thanking him for the job.

“That’s the kind of guy he was,” Patrick Nofield said. “He always portrayed that he was positive and outgoing and fun.”

Paul Nofield recalls Braxton’s extensive assortment of colorful and crazy shoes that reflected his personality.

“He had a Nike collection that was wild,” he said, adding even when Braxton was wearing professional shoes for work, he often had on wacky socks underneath.

The Braxton family was traveling to Union, Washington, for Escape Lodging’s managers retreat at the Alderbrook Resort & Spa when the accident occurred.

Upon hearing of the incident, the mood and the focus of the retreat changed, said Patrick Nofield.

“We gathered all our managers up in a room and talked about the grief and loss and prayed and just tried to be there for each other.”

Instead of celebrating the company’s success and going through their strategic planning process, Patrick Nofield added, it became a time to explore, “How do we honor our core values by being family right now?”

“This kind of stuff happens every day throughout the world, but when it hits you, it’s like, ‘How tragic, what a loss,’” he said. “It gives you more empathy.”

A tribute to Kobe

At Cannon Beach Academy, “It’s been a roller coaster,” Hull said. “All those things that make life so busy and hectic just seemed to stop. You just are shocked and numb and can’t realize what has just happened and what has been taken away.”

When he first heard the news about the accident on the afternoon of Nov. 10, his response was disbelief.

“You’re like, ‘Well, no, they got their information wrong. That can’t be what happened,’” he said.

The academy was holding its first Parent Teacher Organization meeting that evening, and throughout it, they continued to get updates about the family, including that Kobe was in a medically induced coma at the hospital.

“That was very tough,” Hull said. “Everybody was very caring and thoughtful, and we had good discussions there with the parents.”

The school also sent out a message on Veterans Day, so families had a chance to talk about what happened with their students on a day when they didn’t have school. It wasn’t until Nov. 12 that news reached the school about the tragedy.

“We talked to the kids,” Hull said. “We were very honest, very transparent on what happened and what’s going on, and then we listened, too.”

The students in Kobe’s class immediately came up with the idea of writing notes to place around his desk. They are filled with drawings and messages such as, “We miss you, Kobe” and “I love you, Kobe.”

“Our kids, our family, our community, our teachers, they are very strong in supporting each other,” Hull said.

The Seaside School District also had counselor Kaile Jones visit the academy on Nov. 15 to provide support to the students. When it became clear there was need for extra time to counsel students, she returned on Nov. 16.

“Every kid that came to her asked to come,” Hull said, adding some students were able to go back a second time “after they had a chance to think about it.”

Since the crash, Trisha Sweet, Hulbert’s sister, started a GoFundMe campaign to support the family. While the original fundraising goal was set at $20,000, the amount raised had surpassed $77,000 as of Monday, with more than 570 donors.

“We are very thankful for everyone that is helping and supporting our family through this rough time,” Sweet wrote on the GoFundMe page, later adding, “Thank you everyone for all the donations and prayers. We love each and every one of you.”

On Nov. 11, there was a post on Driftwood’s Facebook page stating, the Driftwood family “is mourning the shocking loss of our beloved manager, Michael Braxton, who passed away earlier this week in a tragic auto accident.”

“Please join us in showing Michael’s family incredible support as they move through this tragedy,” the post continued. “Your generosity and prayers are deeply appreciated.”

Community members and contributors have expressed an outpouring of love and support for the family and shared memories of Braxton and Kobe.

“Our community is getting back and we’re getting through this, but we’ve lost some amazing young men here,” Hull said. “It is a loss.”

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