Gabe Valentine Photo by: Courtesy photo
Noelle McDonnal, 7, her brother Scott McDonnal, 9, and their friend A.J. Richey, 9, ring their cowbells while the Mississippi State University band plays the Bulldog Fight Song during Gabriel Valentine's funeral on Saturday at Memorial Garden Park. The three children were very close with Gabriel and knew him since kindergarten. Noelle and Scott are the children of Sean and Michelle McDonnal. A.J. is the son of Mike and Katy Richey.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
June 10, 2017 10:15:11 PM
If Gabriel "Super Gabe" Valentine taught those around him anything, it's that courage comes in small packages. After a lifelong battle against epidermolysis bullosa, Gabe died the morning of June 6 at home. His family and a large, loving Starkville area community laid him to rest Saturday. Gabe would have been 9 in August.
The rare disorder that made Gabe's brief years a continual series of medications, daily bandaging and hospitalizations makes skin so fragile the slightest friction causes it to blister like that of a burn victim. At present, there is no cure for this painful disease the EB Research Partnership estimates affects at least one in every 50,000 births.
Gabe's parents, Michael and Nell Valentine, hope their son's experience will help lead to more awareness and a cure for EB. They hope his grace, even in illness, can offer hope.
With emotion surfacing, Nell Valentine said Thursday, "We want to share his story because he's got people all over that loved him, and that he loved."
In spite of immense challenges, Gabe's life was not defined by EB, thanks to his devoted parents, siblings and an extended university family and city that embraced him. The little boy with a cherubic smile and a fondness for corn dog nuggets and Pokemon won hearts wherever he went. That began long before he acquired the "Super Gabe" nickname and supporters wore T-shirts with the Superman shield's "S" replaced with a "G."
"The bravest person we ever knew is on to new adventures," Gabe's father shared at 1:41 p.m. June 6 with several thousand people who follow Super Gabe on Facebook. Many hail from the athletic community at Mississippi State University, where Michael teaches in the Department of Psychology and Nell has conducted published studies with the Social Science Research Center.
"Gabe was the most famous little bulldog," said Mike Richey, senior associate athletic director at MSU.
Whatever the Bulldog sport, Gabe was often at competitions in his wheelchair.
"It wasn't just that he was at games," Richey said. "It was that he knew the players, and the players knew him."
One exceptional honor to come Gabe's way, his dad said, was being inducted as an Army Reserve Officer Training Corps honorary cadet captain at MSU. That allowed him one of his greatest joys, firing the cannon at home football games to bring the Bulldogs onto the field.
"That was so much fun, seeing him down there, right where the players came out," Richey said. "Players and former players would all stop and talk to him; everybody knew Gabe."
Student-athletes from practically every sport adopted the youngster. On days Gabe was up to it, it wasn't uncommon to find linebackers, kickers, golfers or basketball point guards checking in on him, sometimes coming to the house to play video games with their buddy.
Members of the women's golf team would hit the links with Gabe's name written on their gloves, or take him on in ping pong at their facility. In April, golfers proudly carried a golf bag embroidered with Gabe's name in the SEC Championship. They had presented the bag to Gabe last fall and, with the promise he would get it back, he agreed to let it go with them to Birmingham, Alabama, for the big competition.
"We always give a day off after a tournament, and little did I know that on that day off the girls had gotten together to take Gabe the bag back," said head coach Ginger Brown-Lemm. "They all went over there, with no leading from me. They connected with him on a level that made him just a regular kid -- and they ate him up. His spirit, his smiles -- I can promise you that all of them are changed forever as a result of knowing him."
A smart, funny boy
On May 10, Gabe learned he had passed the standardized test required to advance to fourth grade at Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary School, despite missing all but a handful of school days since December 2015. Many caring teachers took great interest in Gabe long after school terms ended.
"He was very, very smart," said Isabel McLemore, who taught Gabe in kindergarten and first grade. "When he mastered the test for fourth grade, he was really proud of that fact; he told me."
McLemore spent time with her friend and former student at his home recently.
"When I asked him if I could bring him anything, he wanted corn dog nuggets from The Veranda and mashed potatoes with white gravy," she said, the memory a sweet one, the meal a fine one for watching movies and hanging out.
"He's taught me a lot about courage and about how to keep going," McLemore added.
Gabe was intellectually curious but also loved to laugh and have fun, his dad said. Those who knew him describe a brave boy with a signature smile and sense of humor. He often bolstered those around him, whether while being inducted as an honorary police officer with the Starkville Police Department, serving as a player-coach with the Starkville Soccer Association or just playing Pokemon GO with his father. When Gabe didn't feel well enough, his dad would take off alone, playing for his son so Gabe could vicariously enjoy the hunt.
"He led a very full life for an 8-year-old," said Michael Valentine.
In recent months, it became clear Gabe was losing his fight. The family clung together, storing precious memory-making time.
"He gave me instructions before he left," shared his father. "One was to be happy, and to try to keep his mother happy. One was to keep playing Pokemon GO on his account. One was to help other children with EB. The last was he wanted to do something for other children in our community, for children with disabilities, to help give children opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have. We haven't worked out the details yet, but we will keep that promise."
Gabe's hope was also that a cure for EB would be found. In his memory, the family has requested contributions to the EB Research Partnership through crowdrise.com. As of Saturday afternoon, $21,635 had been raised in only five days, surpassing the original $20,000 goal.
Young Gabe didn't have as many years on earth as anyone would have wished, his friends and family said, yet he touched more lives than many much older and leaves behind a legacy of joy.
"I think most adults you talk to would tell you Gabe was a warrior," said Richey. "He's the toughest human I've ever known and probably will know. ... I think that says a lot of him, and I think it says a lot about the family he was a part of."
That family is hard-pressed to express what the community's outpouring of support means to each of them. Through the emotion, Nell Valentine tried. "Thank you. Thank you for loving my boy."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
1. CRA distances itself from Realtor's 'threatening' letters to Burns Bottom property owners COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
2. Developer agrees to purchase Lee for $450K COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
3. Dispatch earns 16 Press Association awards COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
4. 'Father' time: MSU fans take fathers, sons on first pilgrimages to CWS in Omaha STARKVILLE & OKTIBBEHA COUNTY
5. GEDs provide opportunities for 21 excited graduates COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY