By Chuck Goodrich / Special to the Chronicle
Tues Aug 19, 2008, 11:14 AM EDT
Chuck Goodrich, a Hamilton resident, is publisher of the Chronicle.
For anyone in our towns whose life was touched by Gabe Pacione, this has been an extraordinary, all-consuming time.
When the terrible news hit, it was shocking that someone so young, so talented and so giving could be gone. For the 174 HWRHS seniors who just graduated with Gabe, the sudden loss of their friend and classmate was devastating. Because everyone loved Gabe.
After the crash
The week following Gabe’s death was filled with extraordinary moments and acts of individual courage. And it all began — as Gabe’s own life began — with Sharon and Jeff Pacione. Confronted with every parent’s worst nightmare, they could have retreated with their grief. Instead, they welcomed their friends and Gabe’s into their home. They couldn’t get enough stories about Gabe’s exuberant spirit and how he touched other lives. In a time of collective need and grief, the Pacione family brought strength to us all with their loving, open approach.
Authorities handled the tragedy with sensitivity. School officials quickly broadcasted the news to students and established a meeting place at the high school for support. Within hours, the crash site on Grapevine Road became a place for Gabe’s friends to remember him. Candles, mementoes and cards accumulated as classmates and others confronted the terrible reality of his death, visiting the site day and night. Wenham police wisely maintained safety, but from a respectful distance.
Among the many items left at the crash site was this poignant poem written in response to the tragedy by Sean Doonan, a fellow member of the HWRHS cross-country team:
“The Fallen King”
Light from the farther shore,
Ascending to the heavens;
A spirit unlike any other
Races on through the night.
It was not his time to go,
But he had to go nonetheless.
And those whom he left behind
Cannot fathom the vacuum
That stands in his stead.
What do we do?
Where do we go?
Can anything be done?
People may be mortal,
but memories are eternal.
At the wake on Thursday, thousands waited patiently in line at St. Paul’s Church, some for over three hours. The stream of visitors, scheduled to end at 8 p.m., continued until almost 11 and was estimated at 3,000. Father Louis Bourgeois said he has never seen such an outpouring during his five decades in the priesthood.
Two classmates — Pat Ford and Emily Lanois — spoke at the wake, along with a cousin, Anna Evetts. Pat spoke for Gabe’s closest friends: “He lived his life to the absolute fullest, but that wasn’t enough; he was determined that the rest of us do the same. He brought out the best in every one of us, his friends, and when I was with him I could not help but feel that I was truly alive. With Gabe by your side, you were invincible. Gabriel Pacione was not one in a million, not one in a billion. Gabe was just one.”
Many who paid tribute had traveled considerable distances or were entirely unexpected: cross-country team members and the school chaplain from Dartmouth College, where Gabe was bound; young campers from Pingree, where Gabe was a beloved counselor; competitors from Cape Ann League track teams.
The largest turnout, of course, was from our Hamilton and Wenham communities. Classmates mourned in force, joined together for the first time since graduation by their loss. The turnout was also strong outside of Gabe’s immediate class, particularly among track team members and friends of the younger siblings. Virtually every student had something positive or funny to share about Gabe.
Dozens of teachers, coaches and administrators came to pay their respects. Their sense of loss was particularly palpable, for Gabe in many ways represented the best of what they strive to encourage, both in the classroom and on the athletic fields.
For parents and other community members, there was a deep need to share the sense of loss with the Paciones. It was a heartening demonstration of how interwoven and supportive these communities become through our children, activities and friendships.
The funeral service
On Friday, St. Paul’s overflowed long before Mass began. The program book featured Gabe’s trademark smile and full head of hair, along with his yearbook quote, attributed to Frank Scully: “Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where the fruit is?”
After 10 of Gabe’s closest friends and his brother Justin escorted his coffin down the aisle, Father B expressed conviction that “Gabe is living with God or this whole thing doesn’t make any sense.” He sought to find a positive side to the situation: “Gabe, you taught us how to love.”
Mark Pacione, Gabe’s uncle, spoke of Gabe’s “incredible energy and beautiful spirit,” and shared numerous stories about Gabe’s fun-loving nature, personal character and remarkable achievements.
The stories were moving and perceptive, filled with lessons for us all. Gabe’s younger sister, Claire, had talked bravely about how he had so often put her on his back — and was still carrying her, even after his death. There was the late-season race against a Cape Ann League opponent, when Gabe allowed his opponent to remain within close range. The competing runner consequently ran a great race and qualified for States. And there were stories of Gabe’s zest for life, expressed with wild, day-glow fluorescent colors.
Mark’s tribute captured the fullness of Gabe’s brief life, and ended with a memorable quote from the musical Wicked: “Because I knew you, I’ve been changed for good.”
The healing process
After the religious services, hundreds attended a reception at the Community House, lingering for hours. Many took time to write stories about Gabe; others pored over remembrances and photos. Each table was supplied with cards that included the yearbook quote along with a verse from Philippians ending: “Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.”
On Saturday morning, Gabe’s presence was felt by all at Patton Park, where his longtime coach and mentor, Steve Sawyer, gathered hundreds of people to run (or walk) the route where Gabe once shattered the course record by more than a minute. Virtually every Cape Ann League team was represented.
Honoring Gabe’s taste in colors, pink T-shirts were printed for the occasion. On the front were the simple words of the day, reflecting the family’s courageous approach to the entire week: “Celebrate Gabe.” Printed on the back was his memorable quote about winning the New England All-States cross-country championship last November: “I broke away and didn’t look back. You can’t think twice about it or go halfway. Once you do it, you have to go all the way.”
As the last group of runners approached the end of the course, they joined hands to the applause of the entire crowd. After the race, people again lingered for hours. As Coach Sawyer observed, the healing process had begun.
On Sunday evening at the high school, his friends organized a walk around the track Gabe knew so well. One thousand evenly-spaced candles burned, and the full moon shone brightly, as family and friends walked the circle over and over again.
The shock over Gabe Pacione’s tragic death has now turned to grim acceptance. But as we move forward, the memory of Gabe and his extraordinary legacy will live on, both through his scholarship fund and in many less tangible ways.
We have been privileged to have known and watched Gabe while he was with us, and know I speak for all in expressing my admiration and gratitude to the Paciones for their grace, courage and inspiration. Through Gabe’s life and their own example, they have shown us the best of what we — and our towns — can be.