Working in school programs for some our most challenging youth in Boston, many who were gang and/or court involved, I lived through many funerals of students in the violence-filled 1980s, consoling families and fellow staff and students, as we helped memorialize these youth taken too soon. Each one was as heart-wrenching as the next, and naturally it never got easier. This weekend’s funeral for a former student was equally jarring, as it was a student I had known for over 30 years and kept in touch with since he graduated. I met him while I was an administrator of a private special needs school and when I got a job in Boston Public Schools, I encouraged him to transfer with me, so I could keep an eye on him and make sure he graduated. Although there were ups and downs, he was able to successfully graduate and eventually worked on Boston’s “Big Dig” construction project and became a member of the Ironworkers Union.
We were in touch on and off, but I kept up with him on Facebook for the past several years. For many years after his graduation, he would visit us at Madison Park High School, and we laughed about how he came to my office one day with a bag of bills and a checkbook, saying that his room was too cramped, so he knew Ms Ferone’s conference table would be a great place to pay bills. He, along with many other alum, always seemed to know our gym schedule and came to play ball with our current students. Even in his 40’s he was a powerful and strong player, and peppered the game with motivational talks to our students, about his recovery from addiction. His love for the school was also evident with his work on the Alumni Reunion committee and the Madison Park mascot, a red cardinal, that rested in the casket with him.
I recently saw him at the Mother’s Day Walk for Peace, a Boston event for families impacted by the murder of loved ones, and it saddened me to see how many families I always knew at these marches. Ronnie excitedly told me about a group he was working with, Operation L.I.P.S.T.I.C.K. (Ladies Involved in Putting a Stop to Inner-City Killings), which educates women about the dangers of holding, hiding, or buying a gun for their men. Upbeat and smiling as always, he also showed off his new motorcycle. Although it was a rainy day, I felt brighter seeing that smile and knowing he was working, volunteering and connecting with others.
This past August I received an invite to his wedding, and although unable to attend due to taking my son to college, I wished him well and shared how proud I was of him. He replied with a beautiful message to me about the support I had given him over the years, writing “Thank You Janet Ferone, Most of My Success Comes From You.. You have Helped Countless young men and women, And if it wasn't For Your Drive to Make the World a Better Place, I Don't Know Were I Would Be Today.. Like a Light House To A Ship, You Guided Me Into Port... Thank you so much for The Service you Gave The Boston Public School System For Over 30 Years, And I'm So Glade To Be A part of That.. #LoveandRespect...#IDroveuCrazy”
So it was with shock and sadness when I received a call from a Madison Park colleague who asked about RIP references to Ronnie on Facebook. At first, I refused to believe it thinking it was just a prank or bad rumor. But as I checked I saw family and friend’s post mourning the loss of their beloved Ronnie. I reached out to another former student and close friend of Ronnie, who I had just reconnected with after 30 years. He confirmed the sad news and when I asked what happened, he quietly said, “The drugs came back and snatched him”, even as he had recently checked in to a rehab facility, but succumbed shortly after release. All the news articles on the opioid drug crisis don’t make even a fraction of the impact as a loved one’s life lost to this horrid epidemic.
The funeral home and service was packed, a testament to all the lives that Ronnie had touched. I was not the only school person there, even after his graduation almost 3o years ago. MP staff together and shook our heads at the loss of another life too soon. With all the current research on ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) here was proof that in spite of support and success, his early experience of his father’s murder and other struggles, many of which I can’t claim to know, were just too much to bear.
It is with great sadness that I say goodbye to a young man I watched grow from a troubled youth to an outstanding man, creating a life for himself for 47 years. I will relish the Facebook photos of him enjoying fishing and sharing that hobby with kids in his family and West End Boys and Girls Club. My thoughts are with his family and friends, especially his lovely daughter. As I continue to work with youth facing challenges by consulting with schools to help them save and transform lives, I hold the images close of Ronnie and all the other students who have deeply touched my heart.