Vincenzo's story and a father's grief

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BELLOWS FALLS — Jim Ruggiero is not anonymous anymore. Tragedy has changed all that. Strangers and mild acquaintances come up to him silently and give him a hug in a Bellows Falls cafe. Ruggiero hugs right back, strongly.

Ruggiero's son Vincenzo, 15, died almost two months ago after a car crash on Morse Brook Road in Westminster. His best friend, Owen Perry, 16, was behind the wheel. Perry and another classmate from Bellows Falls Union High School escaped with minor injuries. Vincenzo, sitting in the backseat, probably sitting up between the two seats so he could talk to his buddies, suffered severe head injuries when the car richocheted and hit a couple of trees, his father said. He died the next day at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., having never regained consciousness. True to his own wishes, he was an organ donor, a subject that still makes Ruggiero cry.

The last two months have been a marathon of grief for Ruggiero, as he struggles to deal with his own grief and that of Perry, his son's close friend. "He's really my other son," said Ruggiero, who holds no anger for his son's death against the teen-aged driver. Ruggiero and Perry got matching tattoos to honor Vincenzo, with his name and a hockey stick underneath.

The two boys had gone to the prom together a few weeks earlier, meeting their dates at the dance.

Ruggiero said he has asked the Windham County State's Attorney's office repeatedly not to press charges against Perry.

Windham County State's Attorney Tracy Kelly Shriver, who has a personal relationship with the Perry family, has recused herself from the case, and her deputy, Kerry Cady-McDonald, said this week that Vermont State Police are still investigating the May crash.

To Ruggiero, the accident was just bad luck and a bunch of kids going too fast on a Vermont back road, something he certainly did when he was a kid.

"I've crashed and rolled over cars," said Ruggiero.

He has spent a lot of time with Perry since Vincenzo's death; he said he had to convince the teenager to return to school a couple of days after Vincenzo's death, because he felt so guilty. The two boys were inseparable, so close that it's Perry's thumb print that unlocks Vincenzo's phone. "They were as close as brothers," Ruggiero said.

He shows a video that Perry took of Vincenzo the day before the crash, when the two were at Twin Falls, a notoriously dangerous local swimming hole on the Saxtons River. With the water still bone-chillingly cold, it was only Vincenzo who braved the water, shrieking with delight and pride at his audaciousness.

VINCENZO'S STORY

The May 19 crash took place a short distance from Perry's home, and the boys, who had spent the night together, were on their way to their next adventure - driving around Keene State College in nearby Keene, N.H., girl watching. Vincenzo's father snorts with amusement - two young teenagers hoping to meet college girls. After Keene, they were going to go to the BFUHS varsity softball game, "and meet a couple of girls."

"He was a classic 15-year-old boy," his father said.

He said he wanted other people to know Vincenzo's story and to take comfort, especially the kids Vincenzo grew up with in the small village of Saxtons River, the community of Kurn Hattin Home for Children in nearby Westminster, and then at Bellows Falls Union High School.

Most of all, he said, he doesn't want people to blame Perry.

"He feels so guilty," he said. "He's overcome with feelings of remorse and regret," he said.

The Sunday after Father's Day, Perry came over and he and Ruggiero went riding four wheelers. He had some of Vincenzo's ashes fashioned into a bullet-shaped amulet for Perry and another friend to wear.

"It's been a roller coaster," said Ruggiero during an interview at the Flat Iron Cafe.

"I've had Vincenzo since he was 6 months old," said Ruggiero, who broke up with Vincenzo's mother at that time. Since then she has had very little contact with her son. That created a very close bond between father and only son: "My best friend and my buddy.....I miss him horribly," said Ruggiero. Tears come. "I'm a big teddy bear," he said.

Since Vincenzo's death, the community has rallied in support of Ruggiero and his family. There are "Vincenzo Strong" t-shirts, bracelets, bumper stickers and posters. Close to 1,000 people came to the celebration of his young life, held at Vermont Academy, where Vincenzo played ice hockey on the school's rink with Precision Valley Hockey. There was a big concert with Recycled Percussion. Local businesses and people have offered touching condolences, he said. And judging from the tenderness men and women showed Ruggiero during a recent afternoon at the Flat Iron Cafe, it's not just Ruggiero's loss, but the community's.

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Ruggiero is raising money for scholarships to be given out in his son's name, both at Kurn Hattin and at Bellows Falls Union High School. He wants to build benches at Saxtons River Elementary School and a GaGa ball court, (a form of dodge ball) at Kurn Hattin. He is making plans on how to raise more money.

CLOSE FAMILY

Ruggiero grew up in a close knit family of four boys, with Ruggiero the youngest. All four grown Ruggiero sons, John, Joe and Jim now work for the family business - Ruggiero Trash Removal, a large trash pickup and hauling business, with one brother, Jeff, spinning off a side business, Best Septic. All the brothers have kids, and there's a second generation network of close cousins - with Vincenzo and his sister being the youngest.

Vincenzo was named after his great-grandfather, and the Ruggiero family has a tradition of Italian names. But more and more Vincenzo just told people to call him Vinny, thinking it was easier, his dad said.

The Ruggiero clan would all get together every Sunday at his mother's home in Saxtons River and share a meal and do the things families do. It was an important family network for Vincenzo, he said.

After Grade 5 at Saxtons River Elementary School, he went to Kurn Hattin, graduating at Grade 8. He was a day student, and he thrived at Kurn Hattin, graduating in 2018, and starting school at BFUHS in the fall of 2018. An excellent athlete, as a freshman he made the varsity soccer team. But his first love was hockey, but BFUHS doesn't have an ice hockey team, and last year Vincenzo decided to "take a year off" from his various hockey teams so the father and son could spend their weekends snowmobiling instead. This winter, Ruggiero crashed his snowmobile, and Vincenzo had to drive him to the hospital.

Ruggiero also tells the story about his son's distinctive sports jersey number - a backwards 4. It turns out it was a mistake from the company that Ruggiero had ordered Vincenzo's jersey from, and the mistake became a private family joke.

He was 11 years old, and he insisted the backwards 4 was just fine, not wanting his father to spend any more money, Ruggiero said.

"He said, 'Dad, don't worry about it,'" Ruggiero said.

He said he taught his son to say good morning to people, and to look at people, and look them in the eye and to pay attention in school.

"I told him I wanted him hired 'for the neck up, not the neck down,'" he said.

Ruggiero has a daughter, Adalia "Addie," who is nine years younger than Vincenzo. The two siblings had an enormous connection, he said. "Not too many 15-year-olds like playing with their 6-year-old sister," he said.

Selecting from a pile of old cell phones, Ruggiero shows a series of photographs of the two playing together.

"He was Mr. Christmas," he said. "He would do all the decorations and put the trees up. He gave so much to his sister," he said. "He looked after her."

The Ruggiero family was big on riding snowmobiles and ATVs, and the father and son in particular would go away for winter weekends to the White Mountains in New Hampshire and ride their snowmobiles. They were planning a big adventure for this winter, Ruggiero said. Now, that will never happen. The tears come again.

"We're all grieving," he said.

"I'm outgoing, but sometimes I want to be alone with my daughter," he said. "People are giving me space, but I'm so out in the public," he said, referring to his job.

Vincenzo's 16th birthday would be August 11, and Ruggiero says he's dreading it. "I bragged on him daily," he said.

Vincenzo isn't the first and won't be the last high school student to die too young in a car crash, and Ruggiero knows that. He said other grieving parents have reached out to him - strangers - and it's helped a lot, and he plans on doing the same. Tragedy is too common, he said. "It's a club nobody wants to be in."

Donations to the Vincenzo Ruggiero Memorial Fund can be sent to the River Valley Credit Union in Brattleboro.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 556-2147.


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