At the tender age of 13, Nicholas Kelo Jr. knew what it was like to be relentlessly bullied. It may have been what persuaded him to pry open a safe inside his Rittman home and remove the gun that killed him.
Each night when Nick's mother, Jacqueline, left the University of Akron, where she worked in the political science department, she would call her son and chat on her way home. When she came through the door, he routinely welcomed her with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and carrots. But something was terribly wrong Feb. 23.
''I called at 6:30 and there was no answer,'' said the grieving mother, her voice fading. ''And I kept calling. There was no answer.''
When she arrived home, she found Nick near death from a gunshot wound, lying on the living room floor.
''Deep down in our hearts, this was not a child who would have planned to take his life,'' said the boy's father, Nicholas Sr. ''He may have been bullied to the point that he felt like he needed to protect himself.''
Sitting in the dining room of her Rittman home recently, Jacqueline Kelo dropped her head into the palms of her hands. Deep cleansing breaths escaped her. Her only child was dead. The pain was deep.
Across the table, her ex-husband struggled to keep his tears at bay.
''It had been going on for years,'' Jacqueline Kelo said. ''We would talk and he would say [of the bullies] that they were not worth his time.''
Nick played football in middle school but gave up the sport this year to participate in high school band. The switch, Jacqueline Kelo reasoned, resulted in swelling rumors. Some, she said, wrongly assumed that a kid who would prefer to play the tenor sax rather than tossing a pigskin must be gay.
''After that, it [the bullying] spiraled out of control,'' she said.
One such incident allegedly happened on a school bus following a football game, explained the mother of another Rittman teenager who said her son is also a victim of bullying. During the incident, Nick allegedly became the victim of an older student who was ''glicking'' — forcibly spitting on him. Jacqueline Kelo knew something was bothering her son when he came home, but the eighth-grader refused to share the details — telling her that he would handle it himself. The parents became aware of it only after their son's death.
Jacqueline Kelo said it didn't surprise her that her son kept his pain to himself. Nick viewed himself as his mother's protector.
''He was the man of the house,'' the single mother said.
THE GIFT OF LIFE
After Nick's mother found him, an emergency squad rushed him to Wadsworth-Rittman Hospital. He then was transported by helicopter to Akron Children's Hospital. But the handsome boy with the incredible mind could not be saved.
Even in the throes of anguish, his parents had the mindset to donate his organs. ''We just wanted something good to come out of this tragedy,'' said the senior Kelo, who lives in Cuyahoga Falls.
Because the boy had worked so hard to earn a second-degree black belt in tae kwon do and held a red-black belt in kumdo, his body was in remarkably good shape.
''They were able to get nine organs,'' Jacqueline Kelo explained.
Nick had once told his mother that if anything happened to him, he wanted his organs to be donated. It was quite a selfless decision for a kid his age, but then Nick wasn't an average child.
A while ago, the Kelos had to have Nick's IQ tested for a program at school. His mother teasingly refused to tell her son that he had scored 152, which is classified as superior intelligence.
''Your head would never fit through the door if you knew,'' she joked with him.
He was curious about how to obtain patents for things he had invented, such as a waffle fork to remove hot food from a toaster and an incinerator trash can.
Nick and his mom had planned to travel. About the time Nick would have finished high school, Jacqueline Kelo would have been completing her Ph.D. in political science and the two had decided they would go to Italy to visit relatives.
Now, all that remains are memories and dashed dreams.
Children taking their lives, accidentally or not, isn't a new issue in Rittman. In a population of about 6,500, four local youngsters, ages 13 through 15 and not necessarily students of Rittman schools, have died at their own hands in the past 31/2 years — some within the city limits, others outside. It's impossible to know whether bullying was a factor in those deaths.
Rittman Police Department Sgt. Roger Pauley, who is investigating Nick's death as a probable suicide, said people need to think before they bully. The effects, he noted, can be long-lasting — especially if it ends tragically. Gary Guenther, chief investigator for the Summit County Medical Examiner's Office, said because his office is waiting for additional information from the Rittman Police Department, it will be at least a couple of weeks until there is an official cause of death.
Unlike years ago when a child was bullied on the playground but could go home to find peace, today's cell phones, social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, and text messaging can result in harassment 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Though sometimes those technologies can be a way to spread rumors, they can also serve as a way to offer condolences to bereaved families.
Shortly after Nick's death, someone created a special page on Facebook in the boy's honor. Within hours, dozens of people had viewed the site. Some who commented on the page spoke about bullying — particularly at the high school, which educates about 400 students in grades eight through 12.
''I do not know who created this page, but your support is amazing,'' Jacqueline Kelo wrote on the page. ''I wish he had known he had so many people at school who cared about him . . . What happened was a tragic accident in a moment of rage and confusion as can only be experienced by a teenage boy.
''Yes, there is a huge problem in the school. But everyone of us must work together to protect the children we have for the future.''
Moved by what Jacqueline Kelo had written, Krista Cox, a mother from Sharon Center who had heard of the tragedy from a friend, told the boy's mother that ''grace marks your heart.''
Others offered sympathy to the family and vowed that the community would join together to take action against bullying.
''Hopefully, Nick will not have to die in vain or any other child,'' one post read.
Some Rittman parents said online and during interviews that they had complained to the schools with no satisfaction. Jacqueline Kelo herself had been to the high school twice since the start of the school year.
''What we never realized until now is that we were not the only ones having problems,'' Jacqueline Kelo said. ''We never knew how widespread it was.''
When told about the complaints expressed by the Kelos and others about the issue, Rittman High School Principal Brett Lanz quickly noted that he was saddened by Nick's death.
''I feel like . . .everything [bullying issues and other concerns] that is brought to my attention I deal with or respond in some way,'' Lanz said. ''As a school administrator . . .you ask the same questions that everybody else asks — Are we doing enough? How more do we support students? The school becomes a filter for a lot of things these days.''
The Kelos praised Superintendent Jon Ritchie for stepping up following their son's death.
''I honestly don't think he knew that it was this bad,'' Jacqueline Kelo said.
To help the school system, which has an anti-bullying program at the elementary level and has added counselors in some buildings, a fund has been established in Nick's name to help with character education in the district.
In addition, Ritchie said an anti-bullying program will be added to the curriculum in sixth through 12th grade.
''We are going to teach them about compassion and empathy and how to be sensitive to other people's needs,'' Ritchie said. ''I think if we reach the time in our schools and in our society where people generally care about other people, the bullying issue could disappear.
''The people who are kind and respectful and really truly care about their neighbors, their community members, their friends generally try to do what's right and try to be there for people.
''We need to teach our young adults and children to care and be more compassionate about their fellow students. If we can create that kind of environment in the Rittman schools and in the Rittman community — I know this much — it will be a much better place to live and raise a family.''
On Thursday evening, there was a memorial service at the high school in honor of Nick. On Sunday, there is another in Medina.
When a reporter told the boy's parents that there were some in the community who wondered if they were concerned that Nick's bullies might attend the memorials, Nick Sr. shook his head.
Holding up her hand as if to welcome someone, Jacqueline Kelo replied, ''Let all the children come.''
A memorial for Nicholas Kelo Jr. is scheduled for 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday at Kim's College of Martial Arts, 400 S. Court St., Medina. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to Rittman Exempted Schools, c/o Nick Kelo Jr. Character Education Fund, 75 N. Main St., Rittman, OH 44270.
Kim Hone-McMahan can be reached at 330-996-3742 or firstname.lastname@example.org.