Eminem may have grabbed the headlines, but for friends and onlookers in Gage Garmo’s tight-knit hometown, the teen’s final days were about far more than the hip-hop superstar.
After a lengthy battle with bone cancer, the Rochester Hills resident died Monday evening — one day after Eminem fulfilled his final wish with a surprise visit at the Garmo home. It followed a social media campaign by Gage’s friends that kicked into high gear late last week, when the 17-year-old was told he had just days to live.
Eminem, who owns a Rochester Hills home, drew a smile from the ailing Gage when he dropped in Sunday night and sat to talk about football and hip-hop.
Accounts from those who knew Gage paint a picture of a young man admired for his courage and cheerful spirit around Rochester High School, where he was a freshman when diagnosed with osteosarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer most often found in teens.
Through his four-year ordeal, which included multiple surgeries and an amputation of his right leg, Gage remained upbeat and selfless, friends and classmates relayed this week in social media posts and interviews.
The school observed a moment of silence Tuesday morning, and a team of counselors and administrators was on call for grieving students. Although just midway through his senior year, Gage was officially a Rochester High alum: School officials had staged an impromptu graduation ceremony Friday, two days after the teen was told he had about a week to live.
Driven by Eminem’s celebrity, the tale of Gage’s meeting with the star flashed across the world, picked up by media outlets in Europe and Asia. Accompanied by the hashtag “#garmostrong,” Twitter and Facebook lit up with well-wishes for the Garmo family and applause for the reclusive rapper, who reportedly had jetted in from Atlanta for Sunday night’s quickly arranged visit.
“I’ve been on the phone with reporters all day,” said Mary Grace McCarter, executive director of the Rainbow Connection, the Rochester group that helped set up the Eminem meeting.
In Rochester Hills, a city of 71,000, Gage’s tale had personal resonance. Mayor Bryan Barnett described the events of the past week as “a pretty remarkable story about the impact an individual can have in the community.”
A Sunday fund-raising event on the streets of Rochester Hills drew hundreds of cars decked out in yellow — Gage’s favorite color — complete with a police escort to Buffalo Wild Wings, where students gathered to pay tribute to their classmate. En route, the caravan passed the Garmo home, where Rochester Hills firefighters dropped in to present Gage with a yellow fire hat.
Hundreds more gathered Monday evening for a candlelight vigil at the Rochester High football field. About 20 students then headed to the town’s city council meeting, where Barnett was scheduled to speak about Gage at 7:30 p.m.
“Just before I started to talk, they all burst into tears,” the mayor said. Word had come via someone’s cell phone: Gage was dead.
Proceedings were paused as students and council members exchanged hugs.
“I’ve been part of local government for a while, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” said Barnett. “It was a pretty raw moment.”
The teens eventually moved to Barnett’s office in city hall, where the mayor ordered pizza and sat in as they “shared stories, laughed, cried and supported each other” until midnight.
At the website GoFundMe, where friends set up a campaign to help offset medical costs for the Garmo family, donations continued to pile up. The initial $5,000 goal was quickly passed and grew as Gage’s story spread through social media and news accounts of the Eminem visit. By Tuesday evening, funds topped $31,000.
Gage is survived by his father, Ghais Garmo, his mother, Tina Garmo, and a younger sister, Graci. As funeral arrangements were set Tuesday, Garmo family members mostly kept a low profile. Gage’s father had spoken Monday morning to Detroit’s WKQI-FM (95.5), relaying his appreciation for the outpouring of support and recounting his son’s hunger for a normal teen life through his illness.
“He was just a fighter. He wanted to be at school more than anything and he wanted to be with his friends,” Garmo told the station. “This was just (going to be) a minor setback. Through all of his surgeries and all of his struggles, he would be back.”
Gage was particularly close to the Rochester High football team, where he served as a manager even after his leg was amputated last year.
Gage had loved sports from a young age.
“He was on the football team before all that happened,” said his uncle, Joseph Garmo. “He loved all types of sports. You name it, he loved it.”
Gage also played baseball, basketball and soccer. Garmo said his nephew was mature beyond his years, worrying more about how his friends were handling his illness than he did about his own situation.
“He always told them ‘Don’t worry about (me),’ ” Garmo said. “He was worried about them and not about himself.”
Joseph Garmo said Gage was very close to his family and was trying to decide whether to attend college close to home or to go away.
“He wanted to stay close to his family,” Garmo said.
In a ranking last fall, Money magazine deemed Rochester Hills the ninth-best small city in the nation.
“You can talk about numerical categories,” said Barnett. “But something like community spirit is an intangible, and it was so evident this week in the support of the Garmo family. I’m just proud to be associated with it.”
Contact Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or email@example.com. Free Press staff writer John Wisely contributed to this report.
Gage Garmo arrangements
Visitation is scheduled for 2-9 p.m. today with a 7 p.m. scripture service at E.J. Madziuk & Son Funeral Directors, 3801 Eighteen Mile Road in Sterling Heights.
A mass of Christian burial is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday at Holy Martyrs Chaldean Catholic Church, 43700 Merrill Road, Sterling Heights. Interment will be at White Chapel Cemetery in Troy.