Ethan Townsend, a 2003 Ashland High School graduate regarded by friends as compassionate and brilliant, was killed last week in a hiking accident in China.

Ethan Townsend, a 2003 Ashland High School graduate who was killed last week in a hiking accident in China, was regarded by friends as compassionate and brilliant.

Townsend, who was 24, and a friend from the University of Colorado were hiking on a marked trail in the Sichuan province of China, when a rockslide caught them off guard.

Friends and classmates recalled Townsend as a science genius, a thrill seeker and a goofball who joked of growing up to be a pirate while throwing himself into the world of physics. At the time of his death, Townsend was leading University of Colorado students in research on microscope development in the field of nanotechnology. The news of his death was a shock to those who knew him.

"He was a light in this world and I believe many people were positively affected by him," said Alisia Duganz, a classmate of Townsend's in elementary school and an AHS '03 alumna. Duganz played the cello with Townsend throughout school, and said she could tell from his demeanor he was destined for incredible things.

"Ethan was always smiling and always had something nice to say to everyone"¦ He was the kind of person who would be friends with anyone and no matter how long it had been since you talked with him, he treated you like it hadn't been more than a day."

Townsend was born April 5, 1985, in Palo Alto, Calif., to Hal and Mary Townsend. Two years after his birth he was joined by his sister, Hannah Townsend. The family moved to Ashland in 1991.

Ethan wasted little time putting his intelligence to use. His sister remembers math coming easily to him, as well as his knack for making others laugh. A musician and a skilled soccer player, he would stay after practice to instruct teammates who needed help. Hannah said he loved every minute of the time he spent helping others.

Townsend was studying toward his Ph.D in physics from Colorado at the time of his death. He earned his bachelor's degree in physics and master's degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University.

His former instructors at AHS were saddened to hear of his death. Kate Kennedy, the school's physics teacher, recalled his passion for the subject, which was unmatched by nearly any student she has worked with.

"He was very bright, very humble, easygoing, happy, a really wonderful person who was incredibly smart," Kennedy said. She said he was instrumental in leading the school's Science Bowl team to the national tournament in Washington, D.C. his senior year.

"He was a great physics student. Probably the smartest student I ever had," she said.

Upon hearing of his death, his AHS classmates flooded the social networking site Facebook with condolence messages, which went on through the weekend. Friends and acquaintances alike were eager to share their memories:

"He never had a bad thing to say about anyone," said Anna Harris, another AHS '03 alumna. Though not among Townsend's closest friends, she said she didn't have to be to remember his leadership in the classroom, and kindheartedness outside of it.

"He was intelligent and smart. He was a good friend and a kind acquaintance. I think we all thought better of our generation knowing that we had Ethan amongst us," she said.

A public memorial service will be held Sept. 20 in the main gymnasium at Ashland Middle School starting at 2 p.m. A reception will follow the service. The family is inviting all community members to attend.