Youth remembered as an inspirational young man
By David Sharos For The Sun January 8, 2013 11:12AM
Michael Gustafson participates in the 2012 Relay for Life at Naperville North High School. | Submitted
Updated: February 12, 2013 6:12AM
Naperville North High School freshman Michael Gustafson was regarded by neighbors as “the spark plug of the neighborhood.”
“We have lived here 20 years, and I felt like I knew Michael before he was born,” said Nancy Azzaro, 56, whose son Justin regarded Michael as the brother he never had. “Michael’s sense of humor and just being a goof is just one of the many things we’re all going to miss about him.”
Michael Allen Gustafson, 15, died Sunday following a nearly five-year long battle with medullablastoma — a malignant brain tumor that was first discovered at the age of 10. The Naperville youngster, who battled through surgery and months of radiation and chemotherapy, proved to be an inspiration to many around him.
“Michael made me think about life in a different way,” said Dwan Johnson, coordinator with Relay for Life, which Michael supported with his time and efforts. “I know that in just the past year, he raised $30,000 through his own efforts. I can still see him out there at 1 and 2 p.m. in the morning in the pitch black, walking for cancer.”
Michael’s father Allen described his son as someone who was athletic and a person with a “great mischievous sense of humor.”
“Michael was a kid his friends said was fun to be around and was someone who laughed a lot,” Gustafson said. “He was also very athletic. When he was younger, he was a gymnast who was a state champ on the pommel horse and a runner up in all the other events. After he got sick, he took up baseball and basketball but never reached the level of development he did with gymnastics. In seventh grade, he took up cross country and by the time high school came, he decided he wanted to get better at golf.”
Michael went out for the golf team this year at Naperville North and while he didn’t lead the team in scoring, he proved to an inspiration to the entire league. At the conclusion of the season, he was awarded the DuPage Valley Conference Sportsman of the Year Award, which will be given annually from now on and named in his honor.
“The coaches all voted and said Michael deserved this award for being an inspiration and for his courage,” Gustafson said. “During the season, he was too weak to walk so he rode in a cart and played a few holes. He always wanted to show up and do what he could to support the team. People were amazed in that here was someone fighting for his life and he was still able to get out and enjoy himself.”
During the last few years of his life, Michael led teams in the annual Relay for Life event, saying that it was fun and that he didn’t want to see anyone else go through what he himself was experiencing. Johnson said that his experience is a reminder to all of us that “life is a journey and that’s Michael’s experience is “something that affects us all.”
“We continue to do a lot of research and I don’t feel that the American Cancer Society failed him,” Johnson said. “Our mission is to give the people we love a fighting chance, and stepping out the way he did shows doing things for others is not about an ‘age’. He accomplished his dreams with dedication and perseverance.”
“Michael was the other son I never had, since my son Justin is an only child,” Azzaro added. “He’d come in the house and know where everything was and just help himself. He’ll always be remembered as the handstand king. He taught people how to live and persevere.”
Michael Gustafson was born November 16, 1997 in Naperville.
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Van Andel Research Institute, in memory of Michael Gustafson, 33 Bostwick Ave NE, Grand Rapids, MI 49503. A visitation will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 11, at Friedrich-Jones Funeral Home & Cremation Services, 44 S. Mill St., Naperville. A Mass of Christian burial will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 12, at St. Margaret Mary Church, 1450 Green Trails Drive, Naperville. Interment will follow at SS. Peter & Paul Cemetery.
For more information, call 630-355-0213 or visit www.friedrich-jones.com.