East of the playground at Willowfield Elementary, there’s a 20-year-old red maple tree nestled among the greenery. I helped plant that tree as a sapling, tossing in a shovelful of soil along with dozens of others who finished the sixth grade at WFE in the summer of 1993, because that shovelful of dirt was all we could offer to honor the friend in whose memory the tree was planted.
Nick Isgro passed away after a battle with leukemia on June 19, 1993. He’d had a bone marrow transplant in Boston not long before, but developed complications after the surgery. That very day, we’d held a car wash in order to raise money for his care at the school; we all danced around and sang a song we made up (the lyrics and tune escape me now) and sprayed each other with the hose and threw sponges at each other (I doubt too many cars actually got clean) while Nick breathed his last. It took me years to stop feeling guilty about that.
At our sixth grade end-of-the-year luncheon just a few days later, what should have been a time of celebration turned to one of somber reflection. We stood in a circle crying while the DJ played Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” and talked about the sweet, vibrant soccer player who’d never kick another goal, never make us laugh again.
And we vowed to remember.
To honor Nick as the 20th anniversary of his passing approached, I took to social media to ask our old friends to share some memories of him. The response was overwhelming. More than 30 of my old classmates, some of whom I haven’t spoken to in more than a decade, posted messages with their stories.
Some of the memories were humorous.
“I do remember one specific memory that showed both his soccer skills and sense of humor,” Nathan Donaleski recalled. “It was a hot lunch day, chicken nuggets. Nick bounced the nugget off his foot and into John Anderson’s mouth.”
Others were more melancholy.
“That is still one of my saddest memories,” Mike Busbee said. “I’m tearing up now, and every time I hear Queen’s [‘We Are the Champions,’ which was played at his funeral]. I believe Nick would have grown up to be one of our most talented, yet humble friends. Having said that, I am quite sure he is shedding light and serving a more grand purpose now.”
Carl Schaus remembers a weekend sleepover that almost didn’t happen.
“In October before he got his bone marrow transplant I got a chance to spend more time with Nick than I usually did,” Carl said. “I was supposed to go to a big sleepover with everyone else at Joel Hiltbrunner’s and Nick wasn’t able to go because of his health. In hanging out with Nick, he asked me to sleep over at his house. I was conflicted but ultimately decided to stay at Nick’s house because I was having an awesome time with him, just the two of us. We carved pumpkins, played Nintendo and ate crap food, the stuff adolescent dudes do. I had no way of knowing that I would never get the opportunity again but am glad that I was able spend that time with him. I never wanted to say goodbye to Nick but since I had to, I look back at it and feel privileged to have been able to do it in a joyful, meaningful way.”
Jennifer Saumure McLaughlin, Nick’s fifth- and sixth-grade girlfriend, has her own meaningful remembrances, including the necklace he gave her as a birthday gift, a charm necklace with the words “Someone Special.”
“Nick was my first boyfriend. He was the most special person [to me] in elementary school,” Jen said. “My necklace was very priceless to me. He and I also shared a song, [Bryan Adams’ ‘(Everything I Do)] I Do It for You,” which I kept as only his and my song.”
We all carried Nick with us in our own ways, especially Harry Evans, Nick’s best friend from about first grade on. Harry, now a pilot and an officer in the U.S. Navy, has done everything he could to keep Nick’s memory alive.
“In seventh-grade Spanish, I took the name ‘Nicolas’ as my name to kind of keep him around, and I kept it until 11th grade. When I got my class ring from the [naval] academy, I got his initials engraved on it, so he could be with me wherever I was going,” Harry said. “My biggest thing is having anything, even something small, from the ring to staying in contact with his family, so I can still have him in my life as if he was still here.”
The memories continue to bring a smile to Harry’s face.
“I think my favorite memory is when Nick, Tommy Lincoln, Matt Jones, and I played Pretty Pretty Princess against [Nick’s little sister] Jennifer and beat her,” Harry said. “That picture hangs in my office and always brings a smile to my face.”
And Nick’s own smile has stayed with us, too.
“Everything that we did as kids, whether it was racing toy cars in the halls of his house, sitting in first communion classes, playing video games, everything, even up to the last time I remember seeing him in the hospital, Nick was always smiling,” Tommy Lincoln said. “I will always remember his smile, and laughter. I am pretty sure that everyone that knew him was in the presence of an angel.”
Childhood came to an abrupt end that summer for a lot of us. We were forced to face our own mortality, forced to grow up and acknowledge that we weren’t sheltered from the real world.
So we grew, and we graduated. We got jobs and got married and a lot of us had kids of our own. But we still remembered.
When I think of summertime in my youth, I think of Nick — running around in the neighborhood, Nick in the same shorts he’d wear in the dead of winter, carefree and laughing and so terribly young.
We still miss you, Nick. And we’ll always remember you.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.