SAN JOSE -- He was the prodigious guitar player and songwriter, winning music competitions and performing in cafes like a seasoned bluesman.
Pretty good for someone barely eligible for a driver's license.
That his star was just beginning to rise -- both in music and life -- made it especially tough for family, friends, and his Lincoln High School community to absorb the news that 16-year-old Donae James Johnican had been killed by a train Tuesday.
Lincoln Principal Matt Hewitson remembered Donae as "super-musical kid and a beloved member of our music family," writing songs while playing guitar and bass.
"In his music teacher's words 'he was everybody's friend.' He will be missed deeply," he wrote in a school email.
The high school junior died around 4 p.m. Tuesday near Virginia Street when he was hit by a passenger train on Caltrain tracks. Why he was on the tracks remains under investigation; the transit agency said he was near, but not on, a pedestrian crossing. The Santa Clara County Medical Examiner's Office ruled the death was an accident.
Just last month, Donae won a first-place music award in the "Schoolin' the Schools Media Contest" held by Silicon Valley De-Bug, a media, social-advocacy and business collective based in San Jose. "Hard Lessons," which he wrote and composed as a self-taught guitar player, tackled the social and economic hardships that keep youth from graduating high school.
"It's not always the kid's fault. There are other factors that make it so they don't cross the stage," Donae said in a video interview for his award.
Shamako Donae Noble remembered his nephew as a driven instrumentalist determined to learn how to play every instrument in his songs. As a seventh grader, Donae picked up a guitar, and within a year was playing by ear.
"He listened to 'Ain't No Sunshine,' and he just started playing it," said Noble, also a musician. "He was like 14. He was a prodigy."
And the teen's goal to play multiple instruments in the mold of Prince or Ben Folds wasn't beyond reach, Noble said.
"It wasn't a pie-in-the-sky thing," he said. "I completely believe he was going to do it."
From that point the uncle would take Donae to open-mike nights, particularly Caffe Trieste in downtown San Jose. As he juggled school and music, Donae doted on his family. He lived with his mother, grandmother and 11-year-old brother.
"He really took care of everybody," Noble said. "He was easy to fall in love with. He didn't like much drama. He could be quiet and to himself, then sometimes he was the life of the party."
And for a 16-year-old just barely scratching at his potential, Donae looked to music not just as a form of art but as a calling to effect change, evidenced in the themes of "Hard Lessons."
"Music can change the world," he said in his award video. "All you need is the right song."
A vigil for Donae will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday at the offices of Silicon Valley De-Bug, 701 Lenzen Ave. in San Jose, north of West Julian Street.
Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.