Ryan Thomas Fleming (1.17.94-1.26.14)
Last night, I was asked to write an obituary for Ryan Fleming, a Duquesne student who died Sunday morning of a cardiac condition. To be honest, I was almost scared of the assignment.
Writing an obituary is never easy. You’re tasked with invading the lives of a family that has just experienced the most painful thing a father, mother, sister or brother could imagine, and you can only pray they’ll be receptive, understand you’re only trying to honor their loved one, and maybe, in the end, even truly appreciate the conversation.
When you’re memorializing someone who lived a long and happy life, it’s not so hard; friends and family are quick with a story or quote or funny mannerism.
When it’s a 20-year-old kid, you’re going to get raw emotions, because life isn’t fair, and a truly good young man didn’t get that chance to graduate or marry or start a career.
But today was a blessing. There were some tears, of course, but what I heard wasn't about what Fleming didn't get to do in his 20 years but what he did do. Today, Fleming’s friends and family told me about a kid they loved and admired — a kid I only wish I could have met.
Since I only had so much room in print, I wanted to tell more of his story here.
Connor Sease buried his face in his hands. On a bus riding to a law-school visit on Sunday, the Penn State sophomore had just taken a call from his mother. Ryan Fleming was gone, she told him, dead at 20 years old from an apparent cardiac arrest.
Sease couldn’t believe the news. Refused to believe it. He texted one friend, then called another. They confirmed: Fleming, a sophomore business student and assistant to the director of football operations at Duquesne University, had passed away that morning.
“I couldn’t even wrap my brain around it,” Sease said. “People are in shock. A lot of people loved him.”
Fleming, of Richland Township, was the eldest son of Thomas P. Fleming, Jr., superintendent of the Richland School District, and Cambria County Judge Linda Fleming. His brother, Tyler, 18, is a high-school senior and volunteer fire fighter.
A 2012 graduate of Richland High School, Fleming was a 4.0 student on academic scholarship at Duquesne.
“I don’t know anybody that has a better combination of work ethic and intelligence,” Sease said. “He had the best of both worlds.”
“Ryan loved the library,” his girlfriend, Angela Palchowski said. She and a friend had pulled Fleming out of the library one Friday night in October and invited him to a football game at her alma mater, Bishop Canevin High School. “The very first time we met I knew there was something special about him.”
They started dating soon after, and Palchowski, president of the Red and Blue Crew, got Fleming hooked on Dukes basketball. He helped recruit a couple football players to speak at a Crew meeting. And he never missed a free t-shirt game — even had a rhyme for those.
“He always said, 'If it's free then it's for me, and I'll take three,' " Palchowski said in a sing-song voice, laughing.
Fleming spent his last night cheering Duquesne to a dramatic, buzzer-beating victory against St. Bonaventure this past Saturday.
Fleming and Palchowski had met up before the game, and he had complained of chest pains. This was nothing new. He had been diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome last year, a condition in which there is an extra electrical pathway of the heart that can lead to episodes of rapid heart rate.
He hadn’t had much trouble, the family said, but as a precautionary measure he underwent a cardiac ablation in December, an eight-hour surgery intended to shut down the extra tube. The surgery was unsuccessful, but doctors completed an electrophysiology mapping of the heart and told the family he was at low risk for any complications.
Since the surgery, Palchowski said, Fleming had experienced a racing heart every day or two. Saturday night, after Duquesne’s dramatic win against the Bonnies, his heart rate increased again. The episode lasted two hours this time.
“You could feel it right through his coat,” Palchowski said.
“Angela, it's so bad,” she remembered him saying. “I'm 20 years old; it shouldn't be like this. I shouldn't feel like this. I shouldn't have heart problems. … This has never happened to me twice in one day before. It never hurt this bad, either.”
He didn’t want to go to the hospital, though. “They'll just stick me with more needles, and I hate that,” he said. “I'll just call my parents in the morning."
They split ways, and he headed to his dorm room in Towers. Fleming and his roommate fell asleep around 3 a.m., Palchowski said. She texted him at 10:30 a.m. to head over to 11 o’clock Mass together like they did every week. He didn’t respond. Maybe he slept through his alarm, she thought. “But that’s not like Ryan — he’s 100 percent reliable.” Knowing he’d had a tough night, she went on alone.
After Mass, she called him. No answer. When she got back to her dorm, a building manager and police officer were there to meet her.
The Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed Fleming had died at 10:19 a.m.
Ryan Fleming was a quiet kid, Connor Sease said. They all remember him that way. And he had that dry humor, the kind that could make any cold soul crack a smile.
“He was one of the funniest guys,” Sease said. “And he always there for you. He was sort of a model student and son and brother.”
Sease and Fleming had grown up together and become especially close in the past three years. They had played peewee basketball together and football together through high school.
A former high-school letterman in football and basketball, Fleming had a deep-seated love for athletics that traced back to his father, a former high-school football coach.
"Ryan became very good in numbers,” his father said, “because at a young age I'd quiz him: if a team scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion and a field goal, how many points would they have? He was able to rattle it off well before most kids would be able to do arithmetic."
As a freshman at Duquesne, Fleming joined the football team as an assistant to director of football operations John Rosato. His true connection — albeit one he rarely mentioned — was his uncle, nine-year Duquesne head coach Jerry Schmitt.
“I don't think many of the football players knew that Jerry was his uncle,” Fleming’s father said, “because he refused to call him ‘Uncle Jerry.’ He didn't want anybody to think he got any kind of special attention. It was always 'Coach' or 'Coach Schmitt' — that's the kind of kid he was."
It wasn’t really Fleming’s idea to become a student manager, either. Though Fleming loved his uncle and the Dukes football team, Schmitt said, "his main focus was his academics.”
“When he got here to start school, we needed some help,” Schmitt said. “I talked to him, and the first thing he said was, 'I want to make sure I'm not taking away from my studies.' "
That first season, Fleming opted not to travel to away games, giving him more time to study. Finally, before the last game of the season, he agreed to join the team for the trip.
"At that point, he was all in,” Schmitt said. “He's been outstanding. If you talk to Coach [John] Rosato, he's one of the best assistants he's ever had in his 25 or 30 years here."
Schmitt and his wife, Paula, were at that St. Bonaventure game.
"I believe there was a lot of respect for Ryan and a lot of heartbreak,” Jerry Schmitt said. “There are a lot of friends that are saddened over his loss."
Ryan Fleming celebrated his 20th birthday on Jan. 17. He and his girlfriend went to Saga Hibachi Steakhouse, and Palchowski promptly embarrassed the heck out of him.
Lights went off, disco balls went on, and the staff sang ‘Happy Birthday.’
The joke was on him that time. He grinned and turned red. She laughed.
"He was always joking around and laughing,” Palchowski said. “He was never negative. There's nobody that didn't like Ryan."
Added his mother: "He really liked to make people laugh."
A week earlier, when La Salle came to Palumbo Center for a nationally televised contest, Fleming texted his parents to look for the Red and Blue Crew. They caught a glimpse of their son and his girlfriend, and they texted back and forth through the game.
Fleming’s last night, his parents said, was a fitting finale for him.
"One of the last things he did on this earth was cheer on the Dukes in their exciting win against St. Bonaventure," his father said.
"And he was doing what he loved right before he passed," his mother added in stride.
It’s not easy to encapsulate someone’s personality and passions and dreams in a quick interview slotted between a viewing and another family gathering.
But this was Ryan Fleming, in his parents’ words.
His mother: "I don't think you can encapsulate who Ryan was without acknowledging that he had a really strong moral compass. He always did the right thing. He always followed the rules. Always took the high road. He was a very honorable young man."
His father: "He was a quiet, hard-working, unassuming kid. … He earned everything he got. Nobody cut him any breaks. The only advantage he had being the son of a school superintendent was that I'd tell him before I'd call the media if we'd have a snow delay or cancellation. [laughter] In fact, his buddies with lobby him to lobby me. That's the kind of kid he was; he fit in well with everybody. He didn't have an enemy in the world. … He came to know and love a young lady who happened to be the president of the Red and Blue Crew. He spent a lot of his time cheering on the basketball Dukes and lending his support to the other Duquesne athletic programs. … Duquesne was such a great fit for him. We can't say enough about his decision to go to Duquesne and becoming involved the activities he became involved in. … He was able to attend a University where he was able to practice his faith and grow in his faith. He really grew into a fine young man that we're so proud of."
Both parents were grateful for the recent support from the Duquesne community.
“We can't say enough,” his father said. "It was tragic, but at the same time there's just been such an outpouring, and we're very appreciative."
"Not only from the Duquesne community, but we've had an unbelievable outpouring of sympathy from the friends of his, near and far,” his mother said. “He touched a lot of lives. Everybody remembers that he was always smiling."
She added, on Facebook: “My family is overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and sympathy from our relatives and friends near and far. And the people of our town -- this wonderful little town -- have embraced us with what feels like a giant, warm hug. Please continue to hold us in your prayers. We know Ryan is with his Savior, but we mourn the Earthly loss of our sweet, wonderful son.”
Richland High School's varsity basketball game Thursday was dedicated to Fleming.
The Fleming family has established a scholarship in Ryan’s name with the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies. Sease and two other friends have kick-started a movement to sell wristbands to collect money for the scholarship.
RIP Ryan Fleming! You will be greatly missed. You were my best friend and always will be! #Loveyouman— Trevor Succa (@Trevor_Succa) January 26, 2014
Speechless and shocked. That kid was somethin else. #RIPFlem— Dew Spicher (@DewkeWarrior) January 26, 2014
Shocked at the news i just received. Man it's crazy how fast someone you know can be gone, especially such a gentle soul #RIPFlem— Gianni Carter (@GDotCarter_2) January 26, 2014
Ryan Fleming, one of Cambria County's best and brightest - gone way too early.— Kathy Mellott (@kathymellotttd) January 27, 2014