A familiar theme began to emerge in the stories students shared as they remembered their friend, classmate and teammate.
Ryan Oliver, who stood about 6-foot-2 and carried himself as if he were older than a high school sophomore, was a young man so many looked up to at Mattituck High School.
“People at the services kept coming up to us and saying Ryan was their protector,” said Ryan’s father, Michael Oliver, in an interview Tuesday. “He was a shoulder for his friends. … Friends kind of gravitated toward him.”
Ryan was remembered Saturday at a Celebration of Life in Southold as a standout athlete and tremendous friend who was polite, caring and funny and who brought joy to the lives of everyone he met. Ryan died suddenly on Jan. 28. He was 16.
“He had a big heart,” Mr. Oliver said. “He was friends with everybody.”
When he wasn’t racing up and down the lacrosse or soccer fields, Ryan enjoyed playing video games with friends, spending time with his girlfriend and enjoying the outdoors on family trips. His passing sent a school community and beyond into mourning. The Mattituck-Cutchogue School District collaborated with the Community Crisis Action Team from the Family Service League to provide support for grieving students.
In a Jan. 29 letter to parents, district Superintendent Jill Gierasch, principal Shawn Petretti and director of pupil personnel services Meredythe Alliegro provided a list of resources to help families through the unexpected tragedy.
They said students had met that day with the crisis team and “shared their fears, concerns and sympathy toward the Oliver family. Many children began sharing the need for continued support along with speaking about Ryan and his wonderful and caring qualities.”
As an outpouring of support began to come in to the Oliver family, who had lived in Aquebogue for about 18 years until Ryan finished elementary school, Mr. Oliver kept hearing from people asking what they could do. So on Jan. 30, he created a GoFundMe page where he set a $5,000 goal for people to donate to local charities that support children and their families. The donations, he wrote, would be in Ryan’s memory “to spread love all around.”
“The $5,000 was a legitimate goal,” Mr. Oliver said, adding that he was “blown away” by what happened next.
Within minutes, the GoFundMe hit its goal. Gary Lukachinski, executive vice president of the The Simmons Point Group — a financial adviser firm based in Riverhead — matched the goal with a $5,000 donation. Mr. Oliver works alongside Mr. Lukachinski as associate vice president.
An anonymous donor contributed an additional $5,000. As of Wednesday morning, with more than 750 contributors, $77,322 had been raised.
Many of the donors were people Mr. Oliver said he didn’t even know. What really struck him were some of the smaller donations — $5 and $10 gifts from people, including some teenagers, who wanted to help, however small the contribution.
Mr. Oliver said he knows some of those people may not be in a position to donate a lot of money, yet they’re still doing it “to honor [Ryan].”
“That kind of gets me,” he said.
The past 10 days had been such a whirlwind, Mr. Oliver said, that he hadn’t begun to sort through how the money will be donated. The family is considering starting a scholarship fund or foundation, but no formal plans have been made yet.
“It would be local, impacting the community,” he said.
Mr. Oliver said the community’s support for his family, including his wife, Kristen, and their 13-year-old daughter, Kate, has been overwhelming.
He said the school officials have been in constant contact and have been “fantastic” in supporting students with the Family Service League and that Joe Grattan, funeral director at DeFriest-Grattan Funeral Home, has been “beyond.”
“He has made this process, as difficult as it is, as easy as possible,” Mr. Oliver said. “Ryan was friends with his son and my daughter is friends with his daughter, so I know it’s tough on them.”
The support from the community — whether it be prayers, thoughts or comfort food — has been nonstop, he said.
“It’s amazing,” he said.
Ryan grew up playing lacrosse and participated on travel teams and traveled all over for tournaments. Mr. Oliver played lacrosse himself at Wittenberg University and loved to watch his son play the game. When he wasn’t coaching himself, he would be on the sidelines snapping photos of Ryan and his teammates.
This past spring would have likely been Ryan’s first on the varsity at Mattituck. But the pandemic forced the season to be canceled. He had played junior varsity lacrosse as an eighth-grader.
“Lacrosse was a big part of him,” said Mr. Oliver, who is the founder of Mattituck/Cutchogue Athletic Booster club. “He was a big kid who could run.”
At the services Saturday at True Light Church, photos of Ryan filled the large room as mourners gathered to remember him. A large board with “#3,” Ryan’s jersey number, was placed next to the casket. Teammates sat together, all wearing white jerseys. A livestream of the service was broadcast via Zoom, allowing an additional 175 or more people to watch safely from home.
Alyson Wood, Ms. Oliver’s sister and Ryan’s aunt, spoke at the service, saying, “the love and grief in this room is palpable.”
She recalled how Ryan was the oldest grandchild on her sister’s side of the family, so every milestone in his life was celebrated along the way.
“First step, a lost tooth, a first soccer game, we soaked it all in,” Ms. Wood said. “I could go on and on about what a great nephew he was and wonderful he is to his cousins, but there’s no love like a grandmother’s love.”
She proceeded to then a read a letter prepared by her mother.
“You are the light and the love of our lives,” she read.
Mr. Oliver said he will remember his son as a special kid.
“We loved him and he loved us,” he said. “It’s a hole that will never be filled.”