A shock rippled through a GW community scattered around the country July 28, when sophomore Jonathan Rizzo was reported missing in his small Massachusetts hometown.
News of his violent death July 31 spread through a network of Kappa Sigma fraternity members and friends. Thousands gathered to mourn the loss and remember a man who had been known as a motivator and true friend.
“He was an example of the best kind of person, and I know he would want us to remember him with good memories,” Kappa Sigma member Sunny Kakwani said about the 19-year-old.
Friends said as many as 7,000 people attended Rizzo’s wake and funeral August 3 and 4. Friends and loved ones flew in from all over the country to pay their respects. GW sponsored a bus to send students to the services in Rizzo’s hometown of Kingston, Mass.
According to friends and family members, Rizzo enjoyed GW. He came to continue his lifetime goal to improve the world around him.
“He had a strong belief in himself and a strong belief that he could change things in the world and thought D.C. was a good place to do that,” Michael Rizzo said about his son.
At school, Rizzo was involved in the Emerging Leaders Program, Thurston Hall Council, Class Council and the Residence Hall Association. Interested in majoring in political communication, he took upper level communication courses.
To his fraternity, Rizzo was a leader. This year he planned to serve as Kappa Sigma’s fall 2001 rush chair, in charge of heading up the recruitment of new members. His fellow members said Rizzo’s care for others and ability to bring people together made him an obvious choice for a future fraternity president.
“Things weren’t complete unless Rizzo was there,” Kappa Sigma member and close friend Anuj Patel said. “Everybody loved him so much.”
Friends said Rizzo loved life. They said every day was an adventure for the 19-year-old who was learning to play the guitar. With a passion for music, Rizzo spent the summer going to concerts with friends. He liked the Grateful Dead and Phish.
Rizzo spent many hours listening to bands from the 1960s and ’70s with his dad. He liked song lyrics with an ethic of social revolution – especially from Bob Dylan. He planned to bring his dad’s old record player to school this year to share his passion with friends.
Friends said Rizzo’s character stood out and affected those around him.
“He always had a smile on his face and radiated this aura around him that everyone he met wanted to be closer to him,” Kakani said. “His goodness, tranquility and love was extremely sincere.”
Friends said Rizzo had a special ability to make anyone feel at ease. He tried to get to know as many people as he could and made everyone feel important, they said.
Sophomore Josh Garvic said it always took longer to walk places on campus with Rizzo, everyone wanted to stop and talk with him.
“He was a great friend to everyone,” Garvic said. “If you ever needed someone to talk to, Jon was there for you and somehow, he knew how to make you feel better.”
Part of Rizzo’s value for others stems from his upbringing. He was raised in a small close-knit community. Rizzo attended a Jesuit high school, Boston College High School. The school’s motto: “Developing men for others.”
Going through elementary school papers written by his son, Michael Rizzo said he came across one that paints a picture of who Jonathan became. Only an adolescent, Rizzo had written he wanted to help people in his life.
Garvic said his close friend and fraternity member was the most “loving and genuine” person he has ever met.
“He was so full of life and happiness and love,” Garvic said. “He loved his parents so much and would frequently talk about how much he missed them.”
Rizzo had a special relationship with his mother, Michael Rizzo said. He left notes if he ran out to the store for a few minutes and called almost every day from school – a rare closeness during an age when men are generally distant from their parents, he said.
For Michael, wife Mary and two sons Nicholas, 15, and Elliot, 12, the pain runs deep.
“We are very lucky we were close to Jon,” Michael Rizzo said from his Kingston home. “Everything here reminds us of things we did with him and for him.”
The Rizzo’s now have another difficult remembrance of their son running around the house. They got a new chocolate Labrador and named him Ripples after the title of one of Rizzo’s favorite Grateful Dead songs.
Michael Rizzo said he hopes students and community members carry on his son’s values and love for people.
“It’s significant to learn from the way Jon lived his life,” he said. “You can’t not help people and not trust people, because if you do the world won’t be a better place – and that’s what he wanted.”
Younger brother Elliot has large blue eyes and a bubbling personality that resembles Jonathan’s, close friend Kate Powers said.
“His two brothers will follow in his footsteps, I’m sure,” Powers said. “Mr. and Mrs. Rizzo should be nothing but proud of Jon. What more can you ask for in a son?”
She said Rizzo will be greatly missed around campus.
“He touched so many lives, that was evident at his wake and funeral,” Powers said. “We will all miss Rizzo so much next year, GW just won’t be the same without him.”
A similar tone spreads through Rizzo’s hometown, where other parents seek grief counseling after losing one of their own.
“He was a wonderful person,” Kakwani said, “And it was an honor for all of us to know him. God always takes the best first. He misses them the most.”
-Russ Rizzo contributed to this report.