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Kevin Cullen

This loss delivered a lesson they didn’t need

Cheryl Angelo is still seeking answers about the drowning of her husband, Richie, during a triathlon in Burlington, Vt., in August.

Cheryl Angelo is still seeking answers about the drowning of her husband, Richie, during a triathlon in Burlington, Vt., in August.

There was a DJ on the stage and Howie McBride was behind the bar at the I-A Friday night. The I-A is the Irish-American Club, but in Malden everybody just calls it the I-A. Malden High, class of 1977, held its 35th reunion there, and people found it was possible to talk about something other than a storm called Sandy.

They are weird and wonderful things, high school reunions. We won’t admit it, but beyond catching up with old friends and people we can't remember, we go to see who looks good, who got old, who got fat, who got bald, who got married, who got divorced. We don’t go there expecting not to see someone, and so it was just downright unreal that Richie Angelo wasn’t at that reunion Friday night.

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If you had lined up each and every one of the 700-plus kids who graduated from Malden High in 1977, Richie Angelo was the healthiest one of the bunch. He treated his body with reverence. He learned everything you need to know about health and nutrition and exercise at Springfield College, and he ran a karate school for years. Three years ago, when he turned 50, he decided it was time to do a triathlon.

He did 15 of them, and was one of the best in the country in his age group. When he went up to Burlington, Vt., two months ago to take part in the USA Triathlon National Championship, he was running, biking, and swimming for a chance to represent the United States next year in London.

But he wasn’t in the water of Lake Champlain for very long before something went very wrong. According to his autopsy report, Angelo drowned. Cardiovascular disease contributed, his death certificate indicated. But there are no answers on those pieces of paper for his wife, Cheryl, and their two daughters. Worse, there are so many unanswered questions. A Burlington Police report suggests that Richie Angelo was floating, face down, for seven to 10 minutes before he was pulled from the water.

No one can explain to Cheryl Angelo why no one got to her husband sooner when he was in distress.

The line outside the Spadafora Funeral Home stretched down Main Street in Malden for a quarter-mile. Cheryl Angelo thought she knew her husband, but there were people coming up to her at the wake, telling stories. There was the guy who held her hand and explained how Richie Angelo saved his life, letting him sleep in the karate school in Everett when he was homeless.

“I never knew,” she said. “Rich never said anything about it.”

There was the man who walked into the school years ago and asked to buy a karate outfit for his young nephew. Richie asked why he wanted the outfit and the man explained that his nephew had always wanted to try karate but had never got around to it and now was being treated for cancer. Richie didn’t hesitate; he gave the man the uniform and began teaching the boy for free.

Cheryl Angelo couldn’t believe how many people came up to her and told her stories about how her husband helped them. And as much as that comforted her, it also transported her back to the shores of Lake Champlain. “When he needed help,” she said, “there was no one there for him.”

Mike Boyle was Angelo’s classmate at Malden High and his roommate at Springfield College, and he was standing in the I-A Friday night trying to make sense of something that made no sense.

“This is supposed to be a good night, and it is,” Boyle said, gesturing toward people he hasn’t seen for years. “But everybody’s talking about Richie. I still can’t believe he’s gone.”

Twelve miles away, in a house in Lynnfield, Florence Angelo was talking about her son. She is 85 now, and when she found out her son was dead, she looked skyward and said, “God, why didn’t you take me? I’ve lived my life.”

They used to have Sunday dinners up in Lynnfield, and the whole family would sit around the table and eat the glorious food that Florence cooked. But they are finding it hard to maintain that tradition. An empty chair looms large.

“One of his sisters will start crying,” Florence Angelo said.

If the way Richie Angelo lived his life taught lessons, the way he died — young, in remarkable physical condition — taught another. It moved around the I-A, this idea that life is so fleeting, a sobering reminder of mortality at an event that is supposed to be about everything but that.

“We didn’t need the lesson,” Richie Angelo’s sister Sue was saying. “That life is precious. That we shouldn’t take our loved ones for granted. Rich taught us that every day. We didn’t need to lose him to learn that lesson.”

Florence Angelo did what no mother should ever do, and that is bury someone she gave birth to, and so she still struggles with taking some meaning from all this.

“You’ve got to appreciate every day,” she said. “And tell the people you love that you love them. Those were the last words Richard said to me, the last time we spoke. He said, ‘I love you, mom.’ ’’

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.
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