Graduation tribute to three who weren't there

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In all the hubbub and excitement that was Douglas High School graduation on Saturday, it would have been easy to overlook Patty O'Sullivan.

The Keith Roman field was packed with graduates, their proud families and friends. It was already hot at 10:30 a.m. without much shade. Those who arrived early were rewarded with seats on the field or in the bleachers. The rest of us stood or sat on the grass or walked back and forth, trying to muster up any kind of a breeze.

It was on one of those little excursions that I saw Patty standing by herself at the edge of the bleachers, holding a dozen yellow roses for the friends of her son Ryan who were graduating.

Ryan didn't make it to graduation. He had barely started high school when he died from complications of asthma on Sept. 17, 1999.

He was one of three students the Class of 2002 lost on their way to Saturday's commencement.

Angel Vargas, 18, died Dec. 29, 2000, after a heroic battle against leukemia, and Johnathan Wendling, 18, was killed Feb. 12 in plane crash.

The three classmates, however, were very much a part of Saturday's ceremonies.

Nicole Donahue, one of five student speakers, devoted her speech to the boys' memories, challenging the graduates to live their lives for Ryan, Angel and John.

On a day where the emphasis is on accomplishment and hopes for the future, it was a remarkable tribute for the boys' families and friends from the 416 graduates.

But the Class of 2002 has never left these three classmates behind.

During his illness, Angel's friends -- even strangers -- rallied to uplift his spirits and raise funds to help his family pay medical expenses.

Two pages of the 2001-02 Douglas High School yearbook are devoted to John with pictures, warm remembrances by his friends and a touching letter from his parents. His picture is included with the graduating seniors.

There is a section devoted to skaters, featuring Ryan's picture and the Carson Valley Skate Facility dedicated to his memory. One picture sports a friend's tattoo with the initials "R.S.O." for Ryan Sean O'Sullivan.

Ryan and his brother Dan were the founders and co-owners of Ballistic Board Supply, where you could find the O'Sullivans and their friends skating day in and day out. Aware that skating on private property and in parking lots was more than frowned upon in the community, the O'Sullivans and their friends worked tirelessly to make the Carson Valley Skate Park a reality. The facility was dedicated in Ryan's memory in May 2001, 18 months after he died.

A lot has changed for the O'Sullivans in the past 2-1/2 years. The family sold Ballistic Board Supply. Dan, who was home-schooled, won a Millennium Scholarship and is studying film at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Their father, John, recently retired from his job as a firefighter at the Marine Corps base in Pickel Meadows. Patty is home-schooling Shannon, Ryan and Dan's little sister.

The O'Sullivans spend time traveling and visiting family members throughout the West. And keeping up with Ryan and Dan's friends still in Carson Valley.

That connection and affection for Ryan's classmates is what brought Patty to the high school football field on Saturday. She is one of those people who shines from within, so it wasn't too long before Ryan's friends made their way to her through the crowd for a hug and an enthusiastic "congratulations."

For the Class of 2002, Saturday was a day of 416 success stories, plus three more for the boys, who weren't there in body but truly in spirit, and Patty O'Sullivan handing out yellow roses as if they had been picked by Ryan himself.

Sheila Gardner is night desk editor of the Nevada Appeal.


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