In 1996, more than 100 of John Longiaru's classmates at Johnston Senior High School in Johnston, R.I., lobbied local school officials to make the stage handicapped accessible for Longiaru, who suffered from a degenerative bone disease and had used a wheelchair since seventh grade.
The students signed a petition, saying that if Longiaru couldn't reach the stage to get his diploma, they wouldn't either.
In the end, the high school's maintenance staff built a stage on the football field that allowed Longiaru to make it across by himself.
"They always looked out for John," said Louis Martone, a Johnston High teacher who was the adviser to Longiaru's high school class.
Martone said Longiaru, 23, who was elected class president, never let his disability stop him from becoming a leader.
"I'd use the word extraordinary," he said.
"He was in a wheelchair but that never stopped the kid. He never let it bother him. You never felt sorry for him."
ANDREA ESTES and MEREDITH GOLDSTEIN