Schenectady High School senior Draven Rodriguez, whose fearless creativity earned him international fame last year, took his own life Thursday evening, according to multiple authorities familiar with his death.
Rodriguez, the teenager responsible for the laser-cat yearbook photo that became an Internet sensation in the fall, committed suicide in his home, authorities said. He was 17.
Rodriguez’s mother, Melissa Petersen, and stepfather, Jonathan Stewart, gathered with family at the residence Friday. They declined to be interviewed by a Gazette reporter.
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Schenectady City School District spokeswoman Karen Corona also declined comment.
Counseling sessions will be held from noon to 4 p.m. today at Schenectady High School for those affected by Rodriguez’s death.
The humble, well-liked Rodriguez was featured by media outlets including The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and USA Today — and was even mentioned on “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” — after he petitioned to have his senior yearbook photo feature himself and his cat, Mr. Bigglesworth, against a backdrop of lasers. The picture, taken by Vincent Giordano, featured a smiling Rodriguez clutching Mr. Bigglesworth, with bright lasers and a faded image of the cat’s face looking off into the distance in the background. He first posted the image on his Instagram page.
“I don’t want to go in the yearbook with the generic ‘I-look-like-everyone-else’ photo,” he told The Daily Gazette in early September, after the photo went viral. “I wanted a ‘He looks great. Only he would try that’ photo.
“When people look at it, they will know that was me.”
The school district never agreed to let the photo share space in the yearbook with the more uniform senior portraits, but Rodriguez was able to reach a compromise with high school Principal Diane Wilkinson. She agreed to pose in another photo of the same style with Rodriguez, Mr. Bigglesworth and her dog, also taken by Giordano. The picture, they agreed, would go on the principal’s page, accompanied by a message promoting animal rescue and adoption.
Their efforts to raise awareness were later recognized by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Animal Protective Foundation of Schenectady.
“I am absolutely heartbroken,” Alison Jimenez, an ASPCA representative, tweeted Saturday after hearing of Rodriguez’s death. “What an amazing young man. [I] was honored to have met him.”
Jimenez met Rodriguez at a Nov. 18 news conference at Schenectady High School.
Rodriguez’s creativity and love for his cat also earned him local recognition at the inaugural Capital Region Feline Film & Video Festival for Humans in October. Petersen, who accompanied her son to the festival at Spectrum 8 Theatres in Albany, said at the time she was proud of him for standing up for what he believed in and being willing to compromise.
“He never meant for it to blow up like this; it was just supposed to be a fun senior picture,” she said.
Rodriguez expressed pride in winning The Right Here, Right Meow Award for Current Achievement in Cat Excellence, which came with a gold-colored kitty litter scooper. He wore a button-down shirt and polka-dot tie to the festival, where a sold-out crowd of 186 cat lovers gathered.
“I try to have a big sense of community, so doing things that are locally based means a lot to me,” he said then, less than a week before his 17th birthday.
Rodriguez was involved in the community in other ways, working closely with Mike Feurstein, founder of the How to UnMake a Bully program. Last week, Rodriguez posted a “selfie” on Instagram of himself and Feurstein. The caption read: “Had an awesome time working with the kids in Amsterdam and I’m excited to work with them next year.”