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Emilee Gagnon, 21; artist used life as canvas for creativity

Emilee Gagnon had left her Holliston home to ride her bike alone to San Francisco. She was hit by a truck in Ohio.

In one of her last Tumblr posts, Emilee Gagnon paid tribute to the mode of transportation she used on a trip that, in an earlier entry, she predicted would change her life. Just weeks after graduating from Westfield State University, she left her Holliston home to ride a bicycle alone to San Francisco.

“My glorious steed with the strength and light of 100 suns,” she wrote under a photo she shot of her bicycle. “She’s a beauty and I can’t believe I’ve done over 600 miles on her, with 1000s to come with 85 lbs of gear. Love you for taking me on the adventure of a lifetime!”


By many measures, her entire life had been an adventure, though not always in ways anyone would wish. Diagnosed with cancer at 13, she emerged from treatment with the kind of resolve not often seen in adolescence. When her hair vanished, she went to school without a wig, hat, or scarf. When it returned, she made her very being into a canvas for her artistic aspirations, dying her hair a spectrum of colors.

“Emilee was literally a walking piece of art work herself,” Jamie Wainright, who chairs the art department at Westfield State, said in statement the university released after Ms. Gagnon died Sept. 23.

To those closest to her, Ms. Gagnon could be counted on to turn almost any encounter into laughter.Gagnon handout

Ms. Gagnon was riding west on State Road 163 in Genoa, Ohio, outside Toledo, when a sport utility vehicle struck her from behind, according to police, who added that the driver had been adjusting a sun visor against glare when the crash occurred. Ms. Gagnon, who was 21 and wearing a helmet, died from injuries suffered when she was thrown from her bicycle.

“At 21, I think, she had touched more people than a lot of people do living to 90,” said Ms. Gagnon’s mother, Celia. “I always thought, ‘Oh, Emilee, she survived cancer, she has this wonderful personality, and she’s so outgoing and courageous. She’s going to have an amazing life because she’s had her burden, she got through it, and she’ll never have to worry.’”


Ms. Gagnon was using the trip to raise money for research into multiple sclerosis, with which her maternal grandfather, Gerald Osmer of Kent, England, has been diagnosed.

“Whatever she did, she put 110 percent into,” her mother said.

Although riding across the country solo was an enormous undertaking, “I think if anybody could do it, Emilee could because she wasn’t going to let anything stop her,” Celia Gagnon said. “She was on a mission and, by the sounds of it, having an amazing time.”

“When I first heard, I thought, ‘This is crazy, this is really, really crazy,’ ” Courtney Tierney, Ms. Gagnon’s best friend since they met in kindergarten, said of the cross-country trip.

“Then I thought, if any of my friends would do this, it would be Emilee,” Tierney said. “It was so her. If anyone I knew was going to do this brave, courageous, awesome thing for charity, it was going to be her. I loved seeing all her pictures and reading her updates. I was so proud of her for doing this.”

Emilee Dawn Gagnon was born in Winchester and lived with her family in Waltham for a few years before they moved to Holliston. She was the oldest of three children and, from the 1987 children’s movie “The Brave Little Toaster,” adopted Toaster as her middle name for her Facebook page.


“She never really was a big doll girl. She took books with her wherever she went,” her mother said. “She started volunteering at the local library when she was in sixth grade.”

In March 2005, when Ms. Gagnon was 13, she woke up one Saturday with a stomach ache that turned out to be “a tumor on her right ovary the size of a melon,” her mother said.

Uncomplaining, Ms. Gagnon underwent surgery, chemotherapy, and follow-up treatment over the next couple of years.

“She was always a very strong personality before,” her mother said. “And she often said to me that she wants to do whatever she chooses to do. I think she thought she had been given a second chance.”

Among the chances Ms. Gagnon took was deciding that her wig was too itchy and that it was time for students to see what she looked like after chemotherapy. “Most people are afraid to be who they are,” her mother said. “And she was never like that. Emilee was Emilee.”

Bald for a time at Holliston High School, “she just walked around so proudly as if she was saying, ‘I am a rock star,’ and I thought, ‘Yes, you are you are a rock star,’ ” Tierney recalled.

After Ms. Gagnon’s hair grew back, the dying began. “You never knew what color it would be, and she could rock any color,” Tierney said.


“I think she’s just one of those people that no matter what, she was always herself, and I think that was really inspiring to me,” said Ms. Gagnon’s 19-year-old sister, Rebecca. “She really helped me grow and come out of my shell.”

Ms. Gagnon was on the honor roll of Holliston High School’s class of 2009. She was a Commonwealth honors scholar when she graduated in May from Westfield State, majoring in art, with minors in French and ethnic and gender studies. Her senior honors project was called “Revolutionary Beauty: Five Twentieth-Century Women Artists’ Challenges to the Western Art Canon.”

To those closest to her, Ms. Gagnon was foremost a friend with whom all could be shared and someone who could be counted on to turn almost any encounter into laughter.

“She was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. I’m just going to miss laughing with her,” Tierney said.

“She was always someone I could talk to and she’d always understand what I meant when I was talking to her,” said her 12-year-old brother, Oliver. “She was awesome.”

A service has been held for Ms. Gagnon, who besides her mother, sister, brother, and maternal grandfather leaves her father, John of Holliston; her maternal grandmother, Dawn (Clark) Osmer of Kent, England; and her paternal grandparents, Joan Emily (Pineau) and Joseph of Uxbridge.

“It was very, very hard, having her leave that day,” Celia Gagnon said of her daughter’s departure. “Especially looking back, because that was the last time I saw her. It’s just truly heartbreaking because she was doing something she loved.”


Rebecca said that before departing, Ms. Gagnon told her: “I just want to figure everything out. I want to go by myself and say: I did this.”

Not long before leaving, Ms. Gagnon’s typed a joyful Tumblr post in anticipation of the journey ahead.

“Terrified but so excited,” she wrote. “This is going to be an amazing, life changing trip, I can’t believe it’s happening.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.