AN OPEN LETTER TO A LOCAL TEEN                                               WHO DROWNED 25 YEARS AGO


Here’s an open letter to Brian LaViolette, a guy who has been dead for 25 years.

I’m not sure how else to reach him, so I’m giving this a try. If you’re not him, go turn to the sports section or something, and give me and Brian a moment, would you?

Dear Brian,

You don’t know me, I don’t believe. We’ve never met face-to-face, and, with all due respect, I hope we don’t for a good many years. I don’t think the Press-Gazette delivers to where you are now, but we’re online now, too, so who knows? Maybe you’ll see this.

Anyway I feel like somebody ought to tell you some of what has been going on in your name over the last 25 years since you’ve been gone.

Yep, can you believe it? It’s 25 years ago this week that you drowned off Chambers Island. In fact, today would be the 25th anniversary of the very day they recovered your body. You were 15, which means you’d be 40 today. Crazy, eh?

As you can imagine, your death crushed your ma and dad and kid sister. In fact, I was talking to your dad, Doug, just this week about you, and he’s a pretty strong guy, but even 25 years later, he still had to keep apologizing for stopping mid-sentence and blinking way too much. 

“We think about our son every single day,” Doug told me.

But wounds heal in different ways for different people. For Doug and your mom, Renee, it motivated them to start the Brian LaViolette Scholarship Foundation shortly after you died. It’s meant to keep your memory alive, but you’d be amazed at what a big deal it’s become.

I got to thinking about that this week. Your foundation had a full-page ad last Tuesday in the Green Bay Press-Gazette listing people who got scholarships with your name on it. There were 781 of them.

But the way I figure it, your influence on people's lives has been exponentially greater than that.

Help me do the math here. That’s 781 people who got scholarships ranging from $500 to $10,000, That's 781 people whose lives were changed by catching a financial break and getting an education that’s allowed them to go into the workforce prepared to do better for themselves, their families and the world. And that’s roughly 781 parents or sets of parents who caught a break in sending their kid to college. So how many are we up to?

Your foundation has become sort of an umbrella foundation for 55 other scholarships, set up by other grieving parents in the names of their dead kids, all over the world. Now how many are we up to?

Your dad said to me, “This has gotten to be so much bigger than Brian.” I almost thought saying that would make him a little sad, but it was the opposite. He was proud. Of you.

Then there are all the hundreds of donors, pouring money into your scholarship fund and these 55 others. You have to count that as an impact, too, because giving money to a cause has a way of changing the donors' lives.

About 300 of those folks showed up at a big shindig held for you this week.

It was held in the Legends Club at Lambeau Field, up on the fourth level. Oh, wait. You were a big Green Bay Packers fan, I understand, but you don’t know anything about the big stadium renovation, do you? Well, anyway they have this big conference space up there, and they held a nice dinner, and an auction where people could bid big money for signed footballs and stuff, to raise money for scholarships.

A bunch of past-year scholarship winners were introduced. The guy whose boat was used to help find your body in the bay was there. The lady who was the on-duty nurse at Bellin Hospital the day you were born was even there. It felt like a scene out of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Your kid sister Kim organized the event. She’s executive director of your foundation now, keeping track of tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of other people’s money, applications, putting on events and everything, can you believe it? She was only 12 when you died, but she's quite the young lady now. She's getting married in three weeks, you know.

The guest speaker for the party was a veteran named Sal Giunta. He’s a Medal of Honor recipient from Iowa, the first living recipient since the Vietnam War. He did some incredibly heroic stuff a few years ago in a war that you wouldn't have heard about yet. Now he’s got a scholarship going, under that Brian LaViolette umbrella I was telling you about, but his is named after two buddies that died in battle.

All Giunta could talk about was how he was in awe of the idea that your scholarships, his scholarship, all the scholarships being given away under the Brian LaViolette Foundation umbrella, go to not just smart students but students who have shown a spirit of volunteerism, a sense of community, a desire to help others.

I thought maybe he'd strike a John Wayne pose and say something like, "There I was, cannons to the right of me, cannons to the left of me..." His speech wasn't like that in the least.

“I am in awe of the men and women in this room,” said the guy who got a Medal of Honor from the president of the United States and then GAVE IT AWAY to the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat team that he had been a part of. Did I mention he also has a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal with oak leaf cluster?

That means not only is your foundation helping people go to college, but they’re coming out prepared to make a difference in the world. That’s really the exponential thing I was talking about, Brian. All these people not only going to school on your dime, but they’re also coming out to make changes that impact other people’s lives for the better. How many are we up to now?

Pretty cool, isn’t it? But then, there’s another way to look at all this.

A buddy of yours from your old Allouez neighborhood spoke at the party, too. A guy named Scott Andler. 

He agreed that your foundation had become something big and wonderful, but then he said something I think a whole lot of people in the room were thinking. He said, “To be honest, I wish my friend was here today and this foundation never happened.”

It was really something. You should've been there. Well, anyway, I hope this letter finds its way to you somehow. And keep up the good work.


Paul Srubas,                                                                                                                                  USA TODAY NETWORK-WisconsinPublished 11:10 a.m. CT Aug. 10, 2017