John M. Longiaru, 23; 'always for the underdog'
John M. Longiaru, 23, of Johnston, was a well-liked young man who was president of his junior class in high school, a member of the student council and as a high school senior was listed in Who's Who Among American High School Students.
"He read everything," recalls Vincent LaFazia, the former long-time recreation director in Johnston, who worked with John's father, John A. Longiaru.
John M. Longiaru also had a flair for the unusual. For his graduation picture in the 1996 high school yearbook, he wore a medieval costume, reflecting his interest in that period.
When it came time for graduation, a problem arose for John, who had a degenerative bone disease. The stage the students were to file across to receive their diplomas was not accessible for his wheelchair. After more than 100 of his classmates signed a petition saying they would not walk across the stage unless John could cross it, too, school officials made sure that he could. The cheers for him were among the loudest any student received that day.
John also made the news with a run-in with state Traffic Court officials.
At age 16, he received his driver's license, after learning to drive in a car outfitted with special hand controls. But 10 weeks later, the Traffic Court suspended his license based on "physical fitness," though he'd never had an accident or so much as a ticket.
"He was eminently qualified to drive," says state Sen. Joseph Polisena, who helped John get his license back. "They issued him the license; there was no reason to take it away."
"He was a role model, especially for those who didn't have a disability; he didn't want any special treatment," Polisena said.
The experience of having had to fight for equal treatment stayed with John. "He was always for the underdog," LaFazia said.
John attended Eastern Connecticut State College and Rhode Island College.
He had been working for an independent living center in Pawtucket, helping secure donations of equipment, including wheelchairs and crutches for those with disabilities.-- Bob Jagolinzer, Providence Journal staff