This was either the easiest or hardest introduction to write, depending on how you look at it. If you base it on the amount of history and stories to choose from, it was by far the easiest. If you go by the emotional toll of putting these wonderful memories down in print, it was the most difficult.

Russ Leone became Jon’s best friend while students at Northpoint elementary school. Russ lived a few blocks from us, so it was normal to find him lying on the couch in our basement watching movies with Jon, or for Jon to be shooting hoops at the Leone’s house. I helped Mr. Leone coach the boys’ soccer team when they were in 2nd grade. Russ was athletic and popular. Jon struggled to make friends and find acceptance. But they became friends.

That same theme carried on through junior high and high school. Jon struggled at times with his school work, while Russ kept a high GPA. Yet, they remained best friends. Russ went off to the University of Illinois, where he is on schedule to graduate with a degree In May of 2015 in Actuarial Science.

One of our special memories include the night when the boys announced that they were going to rough it and camp out in our backyard. Their idea of roughing it was a little different than mine. We had a tent that fit on top of our trampoline, which they attached and then threw in about a half dozen blankets and sleeping bags.

Then they strung an extension cord from the garage into their “palace” and hauled out a TV with a VCD player so that they could watch movies all night, first on the back of the garage then in the trampoline tent. Quite the outdoorsmen! When it came time for prom, they made sure that they posed for their Bromance pictures in front of our flagpole before they picked up their dates. That was an important tradition.

Russ was considered a member of our family and ate many meal at our house over the years. I have to laugh whenever I recall that whenever our son Jacob came home from college for the summer, Russ would come over and challenge him to a wrestling match in our basement. I never understood why he insisted on this, since Jacob had wrestled in junior high and high school, and was an undefeated MMA wrestler.

The wrestling matches were predictably short, with the same ending every time. Yet, Russ persisted every summer. When Jacob left for the Army, Russ challenged him one last time and it was by far their longest match. When Jacob chose his college roommate as the best man for his wedding Jon was hurt. So Jacob explained, Jon when you get married you would choose Russ not me. Jon immediately understood the friend hierarchy. Russ was his best man!

We had a rule in our family that use to embarrass our children to no end. Whenever they asked if they could spend the night at a friend’s house, or wanted to have someone sleep over at our house, we really didn’t like being ambushed, so we insisted that it be parent to parent to insure that both sets were aware of what was going on. That rule did not apply to Russ. You see, we considered Russ one of our own.

My last story is one I will remember as long as I live. Jon was in the hospital in a coma. We called Russ right away and his brother drove down to Champaign to bring him to Jon. Russ got in that night and stayed with the rest of our family until we said our final goodbyes to Jon. After a few nights, each of Jon’s siblings took turns lying in bed with Jon so that they could spend one last moment holding him, telling stories and just being with him.

It must have been after midnight, and Jacob, Jeni and Jessica headed out of the room to catch some sleep in one of the other rooms. Geralyn told Russ that if he wanted to, he could lay down with Jon for a while. I can’t tell you how many times I would come downstairs on a Saturday morning to find those two sound asleep on the same couch and the TV still playing.

So Russ scooted Jon over a little, and Geralyn turned the overhead lights off before leaving the room. I was on a couch in the corner trying unsuccessfully to get some sleep myself. I could see Russ’s silhouette from the small light by the bedside and hear him talking to Jon in hushed tones. After about 10 minutes, a nurse entered the room and turned on the light. She looked at Russ, and looked at Jon. Russ looked up and quietly said “It’s okay. We’re best friends.”

For giving Jon the gift of your heart, the H.E.A.L. Foundation is so very proud to present this Hero Award to Jon’s best friend, Russ Leone.