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John Longiaru

Johnston, R.I.

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."