When she first met Tylar Zielinski, Sami Fraser said it was his personality that she first noticed.
He had a way of making anything seem funny.
There were also those quick one-liners.
But there was also the way he dealt with adversity.
“One of the things that I think made Tylar a true inspiration,” Fraser, 17, told those gathered at a memorial service for the 20-year-old, “was his determination. He had goals and he set out to complete them. And he did.”
Tylar died July 6 after a lifelong battle with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a progressive disease that robs those who have it of muscle movement and eventually takes their life.
Before he passed — just two weeks before — he completed a main goal in his life, to graduate from high school.
Thursday night’s memorial service was held in the same Fonda-Fultonville High School auditorium in which, wearing cap and gown, Tylar received his diploma as a member of the Class of 2012.
More than 120 people came out to remember his accomplishments, the funny stories, and just remember the 20-year-old who, with the help of many, did so much.
There were friends and family there. Many of the friends over the years became family.
Leading the memorial was the principal of Fonda-Fultonville High School, David Halloran, who kept in close contact with Tylar and was among those who became like family.
“Those of us who loved Tylar knew that this was coming,” Halloran told those present, “but that knowledge has done little to lessen the heartbreak of his passing.”
A video and photo tribute played at the memorial recounted his life and the life events he participated in. He went to his junior prom; Fraser was his date. There was the senior banquet. The senior class photo.
He was able to participate in the photo with a meticulously choreographed ride in a caravan of Mustang cars. It was a rare trip out of the house for him.
That life event was recorded in the video, Tylar giving his trade-mark thumbs up from the Mustang seat.
The “thumbs up” sign became a symbol, as it was one of the last movements he could make as his disease progressed. Tylar also had the nickname “Hot Rod.”
There was also video of his graduation, on a gurney watched over by medical professionals.
Tylar’s father Shawn Zielinski, whose personal mission it was to raise and care for his son as a single-father, brought his son’s cap and gown with him to the memorial service, and wore them in his son’s honor as he spoke.
The father thanked all those who had helped over the years, family, friends, the Fonda-Fultonville Central School District and others. He also spoke of the strength of his son.
“It’s going to take me a lifetime to even try to be anything like my son,” he said.
Zielinski also spoke of the way in which he will try to keep his son’s memory alive, through a retreat for parents of terminally ill children, to give parents a break from their round-the-clock labors.
He wants to call the retreat “Thumbs Up Ranch.”
The father concluded his remarks by repeating his love for his son and giving the symbol of his son, the “thumbs up” as others joined in.
Helping Tylar achieve that all important goal of his graduation from high school was his district-provided tutor Tara Sheehan. She worked with him at the family’s Sprakers home for five years, as his condition prevented him from leaving home.
As the years went on, she said, he became like a son to her. Even after his June graduation, her formal job ended, she still visited him and read to him.
The Monday before he passed, she recalled reading him the popular Hunger Games book. Tylar found it difficult to stay awake.
“Tylar,” Sheehan said at the memorial, “you lived your life with this horrible disease, but you never once complained and you lived your life to its fullest.”
Tylar friend Brittny Richtmyer, 18, who was his senior banquet date, read a poem she wrote for him.
Tylar, she read, will always be her friend. He was someone she loved like family.
“There will always be a special place in my heart that will remain there for you,” Richtmyer read. “You have touched my life today in many different ways and for that I want to thank you.
“Thanks, Tylar,” Richtmyer concluded, holding up the symbol for Zielinski as many in the audience, unprompted, did the same, “and thumbs up.”