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Candlelight vigil remembers South grad
Died last month after beating in Statesboro club
090814 GATTO VIGIL 04
While trying to keep the tone upbeat and positive, Mackenzie Herber, a Georgia Southern freshman from Forsyth County, still sheds some tears while remembering her best friend Michael Gatto during Monday's memorial service and candlelight vigil at the college. Herber said she wanted people to remember how Gatto lived, not how he died. - photo by Scott Bryant

STATESBORO -- Michael Gatto got as much as he could out of his 18 years of life, including the 10 days he was at Georgia Southern University.

His life was cut short on Aug. 28. The South Forsyth High School graduate was severely injured after being beaten at Rude Rudy’s early that morning, and he died at a Savannah hospital later that day.

Grant James Spencer, 20,  — a bouncer at Rude Rudy’s and a fellow Georgia Southern student from nearby Johns Creek — has been charged with felony murder and aggravated battery.

“Even though he left this world in a way that wasn’t fair, he deserves to be remembered in the light, in a happy way,” said Mackenzie Heber, 18, a Georgia Southern freshman, her voice breaking during a memorial service and candlelight vigil held Monday night on the university campus.

“And I hope that’s all that you guys think of, because I don’t want any of us to remember him how he left this world. I want you to remember him making you smile.”

More than 70 students and faculty members attended the tribute to Gatto, who was a mechanical engineering major.

Originally scheduled for Sweetheart Circle, the event was moved to the multipurpose room of the Williams Center because of rain. Then the service moved out to the Russell Union Rotunda, where students held candles and shared prayers and memories of Gatto.

The memories shared by Gatto’s high school and university friends painted the picture of a young man who never missed an opportunity to have fun.

Heber said Gatto led the guys in South Forsyth’s spirit group, and she led the girls, but he unified them all.

“He brought us all together with the cheers, and he would scream, and he would carry these big flags in,” Heber said. “And he had this bright red Mustang that he would drive so everyone knew that he was coming. And he would fly his flags and run around and scream louder than anyone else.

“He would let them know that we were there, and we were there for them. He loved it.”

Heber describes Gatto as her “big brother,” a close friend and neighbor for nine years in Forsyth. She organized the candlelight vigil as a way for Georgia Southern students who were just getting to know him to pay their respects.

One of those students who got to know him better than most in 10 days was his roommate Michael Jurick, 19, a freshman from Marietta.

“He was probably one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” Jurick said. “He didn’t know how to be mean. He didn’t know how to be selfish.

“If there was someone out there that needed something, he would be there for them instantly, and he wouldn’t expect anything back for it.”

He was “just real caring, honest about everything — overall, one of the best people anyone could ever meet,” Jurick said.

Because they shared the same first name, Jurick called his roommate by his last name, Gatto. Jurick said Gatto made a good first impression on him as they moved into their university residence, and that only continued in the coming days.

“This is one of the coolest guys I’ve ever met,” Jurick said of Gatto. “I got to spend time with him, more time than I had spent with a lot of people. And just getting to know him every time I talked to him, he seemed nicer, he seemed better.”

During the vigil, Jurick related a time when he suggested to Gatto that they walk to a fraternity house. Jurick was sure it was only about a mile, maybe a 15- or 20-minute walk from their dorm.

“It was four miles, and it took an hour and a half,” Jurick said. “He was not excited about that. He had something to say about every step. But we got there, and we had a lot of fun that night.” And they did get a ride home afterward, he added.

Some who didn’t know Gatto at all prayed for peace and comfort for those who did know and love him.

Others shared vignettes about Gatto: his apparently voracious appetite (even though he had a thin build); the way he would make them laugh even when caught in a typical Georgia thunderstorm; even an infamous wardrobe malfunction during a spring break trip to Panama City, Fla.

Most importantly, though, Gatto didn’t get the most out of life just for himself, or even those closest to him. In death, he saved the lives of others.

“He was an organ donor,” Jurick said. “Immediately, his organs saved five lives. They said they could probably get six from him. He was such a healthy kid. Even in death, he helped people.”