MATAWAN, Mich. — Pastor Paul Fazio still smiles when talking about his friends Richard and Tyler Smith. His teenage son and Tyler played soccer together for three years and he has nothing but fond memories of the Smith family. But when the pair were shot and killed at a car dealership during the Kalamazoo shooting spree in February, pain set in for him and the family.
“When this happened, that connection took a different turn,” Fazio said while fighting back tears. “I’m very thankful that they allowed me in their lives even in such a difficult situation.”
Determined to remember the joy of Richard and Tyler, Fazio spoke at their tree dedication ceremony on Wednesday afternoon. A crowd of 100 people gathered on the lawn at Mattawan High School where Tyler was a senior and star athlete.
“So often memorials are about ends,” said Fazio wearing a Smith Strong T-shirt at his North Park church. “But it was Rich and Tyler. They knew how to live life.”
Fazio said that he emphasized to people that the tree was a living memory of Richard and Tyler because they lived life to the full. Other people spoke as well at the ceremony, including a woman who shared the story of the tree. She said a student was one day sitting alone on a bus when Tyler befriended him out of the blue. The parents of that student wanted to show their appreciation by donating a pine tree.
“In today’s world of bullying and everything else, Tyler took the time to say ‘Hey, sit with me,'” said Fazio. “There again it's about life and about the difference that, in that case Tyler and obviously from Rich, made in this young man’s life.”
Matawan superintendent Robin Buchler said it was a cold and windy afternoon but everyone stayed until the end. Tyler’s soccer teammates performed a soccer ritual and everyone — including mother and wife Laurie Smith and daughter Emily — sang Happy Birthday to Tyler. He would’ve turned 18 years old.
“Singing Happy Birthday was hard for his mom and friends,” said Buchler over the phone. “Saw a few tears throughout the crowd.”
Buchler added that the school district will care for the tree for years to come. The Smith family is welcomed to view it and care for it any time they wish.
“This tree was going to represent how to live life,” said Fazio. “Not to wither away, not to let this tragedy get the best of everyone. But how to fill their life, and to fill our lives, and make a difference in the world in which we live. That’s what they would’ve wanted.”