HAVERHILL — Many here knew him as “Crazy Mike,” a man who often slept outside, loitered near strip malls and parks, and sometimes shouted angry nonsense or pointed imaginary guns as he publicly struggled with mental illness.
The cruelest of his neighbors pretended to lob grenades his way, making light of the demons he brought back from Vietnam.
Soon after Mike Nicoloro died this month, though, a different image emerged. A photo that made its way around Facebook showed Nicoloro as a clean-cut young soldier, wearing the pin of an Army Airborne medic, and helped bring his story of service and suffering into focus for those who had passed him by for years with little thought.
“It was like a wave of truth came over me, and I think it did for everyone,” said Christopher Ryan, referring to the photo during a vigil Monday night in a Haverhill park. “And I think that’s really when it hit home for everyone who we lost.”
More than a thousand people have expressed condolences by joining a Facebook page in Nicoloro’s honor, and hundreds more have shown up to memorial events — including the vigil, which was put together by a 14-year-old boy.
For some who never really knew him, Nicoloro’s death was an occasion of regret. Could they have done more to help a man who was so clearly suffering?
If she had it to do over again, Crystina Hernandez said, she would have done something to help Nicoloro: “Seeing him walking down the street, instead of turning a blind eye, maybe grabbing a sandwich and handing it to him.”
Sarah Clarke also expressed sadness, saying, “I wish I had the opportunity to show him some kindness.”
For those who knew Nicoloro, the vigil was an opportunity to honor a person who had for too long been ignored.
Jacob Baril, who organized the gathering, said some of his friends used to try to scare the troubled veteran.
“I would tell them that it was completely rude,” he said. “Just out of respect, you shouldn’t be that rude to anybody.”
Haverhill officials opened the city park on Lake Saltonstall for the vigil Monday night. Members of Nicoloro’s family arrived early, and took in an emotional scene as mourners made their way up the short hill leading to a pavilion.
They didn’t know Nicoloro had so many connections around the city and in nearby Groveland, where he lived most recently.
“We always felt like, ‘Could we do more for Mike?’ ” said Joe Gore, Nicoloro’s brother. “Haverhill was his home, and his extended family was all these people he saw on a daily basis.”
It hurt Nicoloro’s family when people were unkind to him, especially when he was made into a spectacle. Somebody on Facebook made a facetious site about “Crazy Mike,” following, with glee, his real and imagined activities.
The page was eventually taken down.
The family had been frustrated in their efforts to help Nicoloro in his struggle with mental illness. He didn’t like to stay in one place, though he never went far. Sometimes, he would get mental health treatment, and he would feel better, but then he’d stop taking his medication.
His sister, Dorothy Rich, said Nicoloro was a regular guy when he joined the Army — and, like many other Vietnam vets, emerged emotionally damaged. “They were young boys. They had their whole world ahead of them,” she said. “That war destroyed them.”
Gore said it heartened the family to learn about the people who helped Nicoloro.
Some would offer him a lift. DJ’s Roast Beef would let him “pay” for his sandwich with the circulars from other stores, instead of money.
Nicoloro’s family has been similarly moved by the outpouring of sympathy that followed his death. Authorities told them that he was found between two buildings downtown, where he had gone to sleep. He was 64.
At the vigil, residents recalled Nicoloro as a man who had wandered through the background of their community for three generations.
“Mike was out in public for all of us to see,” said Ryan, who came to the vigil holding a poster with Nicoloro’s military portrait on one side, and an image of him on the streets on the other. Pinwheels stuck out from the top and spun in the cool wind.
Mayor James J. Fiorentini spoke about how Nicoloro’s life and death highlight the need for better mental health services, particularly for veterans. He noted that he had never met Mike, and asked the crowd how many of them had. Nearly all of them raised their hands. As he stepped away, the Haverhill mayor said he was moved to hear from the people who supported Mike. “Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was,” he said.
Gore said he hopes those mourning his brother will fight the instinct to walk away when they encounter someone with a mental illness. “I hope that’s going to change,” he said. “In Haverhill, at least, it is.”