Saturday, July 12, 2008

'Just the greatest guy you could ever meet'

Family, friends say goodbye to Leo Vann Jr., 14

By Joseph Kellard

“His smile — that’s all you needed to know about him,” Chris Ferrante said before the funeral service for his friend, 14-year-old Leo Vann Jr., at the Christian Light Missionary Baptist Church.

Inside, that smile — along with Vann’s benevolent, optimistic spirit — figured prominently in speeches the drowning victim’s family and friends gave at the two-hour service on July 3. They remembered that Leo was full of joy, excitement and jokes, and some likened him to the sun or a rainbow that shone through dark clouds.

Lakesha Thomas, Leo’s mother, highlighted her son’s smile and his upbeat personality when she stood beside his gray casket, microphone in hand, in front of hundreds of mourners who packed the church’s pews, lined its walls and spilled outside the front doors.

“Whenever I was down,” said Thomas, who wore a button sporting her son’s image on her black blouse, “Leo would always say to me ‘Ma, it’s not that serious. We don’t have time for that.’”

Even in a remembrance piece she wrote about her son that appeared in the service’s program, Thomas mentioned his pearly whites and his carefree attitude. “Although you were only 14,” she wrote, “you taught me how to relax and enjoy life.”

Wayne Vann, a deacon at Christian Light, called his nephew “one of God’s instruments,” and said, “Leo’s smile — that smile — changed complexions in people … If you didn’t have love in your heart when you met him, you certainly did after that.”

“That Leo is gone just really breaks my heart,” said his younger sister, Zariah Simone Vann. “He was just the greatest guy you could ever meet. It seemed like he never had a bad day in his life.”

But Leo’s worst day came on June 27. That afternoon, while skateboarding with friends at a park near the Recreation Center on Reynolds Channel, he jumped into the bay to cool off and never resurfaced. His body was found later by rescue personnel, but they could not revive him.

Leo was born April 12, 1994 at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, on the birthday of his aunt, LaSheena Neals, who recalled that day.

“‘I don’t want this,’ I said,” Neals joked about being presented with Leo for the first time, and the mourners managed a collective laugh despite their sorrow. “But he was the best birthday present that I ever got.”

Leo’s father, Leo Vann Sr., taught him how to shoot a basketball and throw a fastball. His son developed into a versatile athlete who played football, volleyball and soccer and ran track.

A week before he drowned, Leo graduated from Long Beach Middle School, where he was honored with the Mags Humanitarian Award, presented by teachers to “a student who goes out of his way to help people and tries their best,” said Keith Biesma, the school’s assistant principal.

During his power-charged eulogy, the Rev. Isaac Melton told the mourners — a racially mixed crowd — that Leo didn’t treat others according to their racial group or other irrelevancies. Some mourners recalled that Leo liked to attend church, while others noted what he enjoyed most: riding his skateboard with his friends.

Kelli Ann Santaniello described how she was baffled when her daughter, Lauren, told her that she wanted to give her skateboard to Leo, who was without a board but would later collect 10. “‘If you knew Leo the way I know him, you’d understand,’” said Santaniello, quoting her daughter, a co-winner of the Mags Award. Santaniello said her daughter was glad that Leo died doing what he loved.

Leo Sr., who had planned to have his son visit him in Georgia this summer, was taken aback by the number of Leo’s friends who attended prayer vigils and other gatherings after his death. “Who knew that your charm and charisma would make you everyone’s star?” he wrote in a note about his first child.

Leo’s friends wore T-shirts, buttons and hats that featured his smiling image, and in unison they did his favorite rally-like clap during the service, which also featured his relatives singing gospel classics like “Walk With Me Jesus.”

“He was friends with the whole class,” said Caitlin O’Connell, who had graduated with Vann two weeks earlier.

“He was not mean to anyone,” said J.T. Forkin, another LBMS graduate. “He gave everyone a chance.”

Outside the church after the service, Coby Thomas told reporters that his cousin’s goal in life was to protect kids who were being beaten up. “How better can you get than that?” he asked. “You can’t get no better than that.”

Leo’s wake was held at Jordan’s Funeral Home in Island Park, and he was buried at Greenfield Cemetery in Hempstead. In addition to his parents and sister, he is survived by a brother, Quamel Dejuan Mclaurin of Long Beach; grandmothers Virginia Crawford of Long Beach and Yvonna Presley of Hempstead; grandfathers Shawn Presley of Hempstead and Harold Washington; a great-grandmother, Pinkie Vann- Williams; aunts LaSheena Neals and Shamona Crawford of Long Beach and Ayanna Vann of Dallas, Ga.; uncles Terrele Boyce of Denver and Larry Strevens of Long Beach; and cousins Jayden Serrano, Luvv Michee’ Scott and Zion Boyce.Joseph Kellard is a journalist and columnist living in New York.

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