There was just something about pumpkins that little Dustin White adored.
“He’s just had this random obsession with it since he was about 2,” said his mother, Liz White. “We don’t even know where it came from ourselves.”
Starting with Halloween when he was 2 years old, Dustin couldn’t get enough of pumpkins. His parents thought it was a phase.
“But it stuck,” his father, Tom White, said with a laugh. “Whenever he saw pumpkins, he just went crazy about them.”
The community turned J.F. Gregory Park into a big pumpkin patch Monday night in remembrance of Dustin.
The 5-year-old Richmond Hill boy with an affinity for pumpkins died Oct. 21 from complications from a stroke. He was a kindergartner at McAllister Elementary School.
A crowd of family and friends attended a “light the night” memorial to celebrate Dustin’s life. They raised colorful glow sticks toward the sky in a tribute to him.
“He was a shining star,” said Mary Daniel, his teacher at MES.
“He was such a ray of light,” said Kerry Bayens, one of his prekindergarten teachers last year. “His sunny smile, expressive eyes and bubbly personality lit up the entire room.”
Those who knew Dustin said he maintained his positive, vivacious approach to life despite his health problems. He had respiratory issues from the time he was born, according to his mother.
Bayens recalled how disappointed Dustin’s classmates were that he was absent on class-picture day last year because he was in the hospital with pneumonia. So they “blew up a photo of his sweet face,” she said, and used it as a stand-in for the photo.
“He was way too vital a part of our class to not be with us in our photo,” Bayens said.
“In his brief but beautiful life, he bravely faced the adversities of all of his health challenges,” family friend Joe Wadas said. “There was something very, very special about Dustin.”
That was evident from the turnout for Monday night’s program. A number of Dustin’s friends were dressed in costumes to share in his love of Halloween.
People brought more than 200 pumpkins, many of them carved, to J.F. Gregory Park in honor of Dustin. Rows of pumpkins adorned the amphitheater steps, while dozens of other pumpkins were arranged to spell “Dustin” on the pavement.
“I can’t believe my 5-year-old had this kind of impact,” Liz White said. “I don’t even have words. I feel like I need to Google bigger words.”
‘He taught us’
Bayens found plenty of words to describe Dustin, including “our inspiration” and an “absolute treasure to everyone you met.” Being part of his “short but meaningful life” was “an incredible privilege,” she said.
“He was so animated about everything,” Bayens said. “He and his buddies would take the playground by storm, either roaring like dinosaurs or yapping like puppy dogs, depending on the day.”
Except for one particular day that sticks in Bayens’ mind. Dustin was undergoing a round of breathing treatments and was told by his doctors that he couldn’t have any physical activity.
“Dustin reluctantly went to the bench with a long face to sit down and suffer all alone through recess,” Bayens recalled. “A little while later, we looked over and the bench was full — all ears and eyes on sweet Dustin as he entertained his friends. There is no denying that he had a magnetic, captivating personality.”
Dustin was an entertainer in the classroom as well, Bayens explained. He often added humorous anecdotes to the story-time discussions in class.
“We could not wait to call on Dustin because we were guaranteed an out-of-this-world answer,” she said. “He absolutely loved to make others smile and make others happy.”
With the joy and laughter came valuable lessons, Bayens told the crowd. Bayens said she thought at the time that she was teaching Dustin, but later realized it was the other way around.
“I know now that it was you who taught us,” Bayens said. “Dustin taught us the meaning of unconditional love. He taught us about a sense of community. He taught us to always look on the bright side, to savor every moment and to live our lives to the fullest.”
Dustin brought that same zest for life to his kindergarten class at McAllister Elementary this year. Daniel described him as “the light of the classroom.”
His classmates miss him very much, Daniel said. In Dustin’s honor, the children chose to write what they liked most about him.
“I loved to play with Dustin on the playground,” Daniel said, reading what her students wrote. “I like how Dustin is a good friend to me. … I like how he was nice to me. He was my best friend. … I like how he was so kind. … I like how he was cool. He liked dinosaurs, and I did too.”
The young children also are helping the teachers deal with losing their beloved student. Daniel took comfort in a comment one of her kindergarteners made the day after Dustin’s death.
Daniel said, “She came up and she said, ‘Please don’t be sad. Dustin is so happy. He’s in heaven with the angels playing with pumpkins and dinosaurs.’”