OUR VIEW: In memory of Dalton, a community unites

By Daily News • Last Updated 10:14 am on Thursday, April 05, 2012

All our hearts were broken last weekend when we lost one of our own.

Dalton Gustinis, a 16-year-old student at Tri County High School, died in a boating accident in Friday’s early morning hours.

Montcalm County Sheriff’s divers, assisted by Kent and Ottawa sheriff’s officials, searched 38 hours before recovering the boy’s body in the center of Little Whitefish Lake in Pierson Township.

The late-night fishing expedition was supposed to be a celebration of the start of spring break for Gustinis and his friends, Nathan MacKenzie and David Vandyke, both 16. But one thing after another went wrong — the boat had a leak and took on water, the boys weren’t wearing life jackets and Gustinis was weighed down by heavy work boots in the cold water.

MacKenzie and Vandyke made it to shore and quickly realized their friend was missing. Shivering from hypothermia, they searched for Gustinis in vain. Sheriff’s officials were called in around 12:30 a.m.
Tri County teenagers stood along the shoreline of Little Whitefish Lake all day Friday, waiting in silence while divers searched the 181-acre lake. The teens held a candlelight vigil in their friend’s honor Friday night in the parking lot of Tri County High School.

“I wish you could have seen it, Dalton, you brought a town of enemies together as a whole,” a friend wrote on Gustinis’ Facebook page during Saturday’s early morning hours.

Divers finally located Gustinis on Saturday afternoon. Montcalm County Sheriff’s Lt. Steve Russell said finding Gustinis was “a lot of relief for the family and for our guys as well.”

Officials from Kent, Montcalm and Ottawa counties worked together throughout the weekend to locate the teen, sharing equipment and manpower while working in less than ideal weather conditions, including thunder, lightning, rain, sleet and snowflakes.

“This was a big operation,” Russell said. “We couldn’t have done it without their manpower and technology.”

Finding Gustinis allowed his family to find some closure and begin the grieving process. The Pierson family was touched by “hundreds and hundreds of people” who reached out to them — including a Grand Rapids couple who had lost their own 16-year-old son and brought flowers to Little Whitefish Lake.

Tri County Area Schools staff opened their arms to grieving students all day Friday, giving them a refuge from the cold rain where they could eat hot pizza, talk to school counselors and hang out in groups. The school opened its Central Office again on Monday to give students a place to go. Pastors also helped local churches organize to reach out to the community.

“Our community has really pulled together in this situation,” noted Tri County Superintendent Al Cumings.
“Just the heart of the community comes alive. It’s one of the great things about being in a close community like Tri County.”

Tri County students did as much as anyone to help the community heal. Teenagers descended on the family home in Pierson on Sunday to cut wood for Gustinis’ mother — something he had promised he would do for her during spring break. Teens were welcomed into the home where they laughed and cried along with Gustinis’ family while sharing memories of their friend.

Sherry Gustinis Quick is planning a memorial service for her son after spring break this week. In the meantime she and the Tri County community are holding onto the good memories of Gustinis.

Rest in peace, Dalton. We all may not have known you personally, but you sure touched a lot of lives — and left behind a more united community. Gone at 16 is gone too soon, but you brought your peers and community together in a way no one else could. You will not be forgotten.

Editorial opinions are the consensus of The Daily News editorial board.

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