Hundreds mourn loss of popular Corona grad

By Brian Gomez

The impact of  Frankie Valenzuela’s life on those around him may not have been evident during his turbulent final days, but it was clearly visible this past week when hundreds mourned the loss of a selfless individual known as much for his infectious smile as he was for his compassion toward others.

The former Corona del Sol High School student was remembered Aug. 11 at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in an emotional memorial service that shed light on his numerous contributions, as short-lived as they may have been.

Valenzuela, 19, was laid to rest the following day at St. Francis Catholic Cemetery as thoughts of his courageous battle with leukemia gave way to an endless sea of watery eyes and weeping hearts.

“Frankie is in a better place…no pain, no timelines, no worries,” said Kurt Gearhart, father of Valenzuela’s girlfriend, Lauren. “He doesn’t rely on others for his well-being. He doesn’t need comforting or regrets as he watches from a different venue.”

Valenzuela was buried in his red racing shirt, a token of his love for the 1971 Buick Skylark that he left behind. His hands clenched a rosary necklace, symbolizing his faith as a devout Catholic.

At the funeral, Valenzuela’s casket was blessed with incense in front of the altar, before being doused in holy water, first by his mom, Anna, then by his sister, Angelica, and lastly by his dad, Frank.

Valenzuela’s body was transported from the serene foreground of downtown Phoenix to his final resting place in an elaborate funeral procession highlighted by the sirens of escort motorcycles that rode alongside a long stretch of cars.

Shortly after Valenzuela’s casket was lowered into the ground, friends and family paid their final respects by dropping dirt and flowers--objects that couldn’t possibly express the emptiness in their hearts.

“He was humble and he did his job without ever being asked,” said Corona graduate Mike Price, who marched in the school’s band with Valenzuela. “I never once saw him wanting anything. He always just took it in stride.”

Originally diagnosed with leukemia in September 2001, Valenzuela had been in and out of hospitals since the midpoint of his senior year in high school. He found renewed hope last month when doctors located a bone marrow match, believed to be from another Hispanic male.

Valenzuela was scheduled to undergo a bone marrow transplant Aug. 11, but tests revealed he had again relapsed, this time with a more aggressive form of acute myeloid leukemia.

After being readmitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Valenzuela showed symptoms of erratic breathing on the left side of his lungs. Doctors moved him to intensive care, then put him on a ventilator after noticing he had developed an infection in his lungs.

Although Valenzuela’s respiratory system continued to deteriorate, placing strains on his heart and kidneys, his vital signs remained steady long enough for his girlfriend to return to the Valley from vacation in Oklahoma City.

 “Frankie just seemed to hold out, and he didn’t want to let go,” Frank Valenzuela said. “He was waiting for Lauren to get in. Once she got in, he started to relax and he started to ease into letting go.”

Valenzuela made a name for himself at Corona as a member of the school’s prestigious drum line. He was often seen playing in band competitions and during football games.

Corona band boosters are considering honoring Valenzuela by establishing an award or a memorial fund, similar to one currently in place for deceased band members Alona Holte and Abby Showalter.

“He wasn’t the most talented person on the drum line, but if there was a problem with something he was doing, he would just spend as much time as it took to get it fixed,” former Corona band director Bill Richardson said.

Valenzuela stayed optimistic during his cancer fight, even while finishing the last semester of his senior year from home. He couldn’t attend school because his risk of infection was too high, coupled with the fact that he was often fatigued from hours of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

“I’ll never forget one night after he graduated when I saw him at Subway,” Corona principal Jim Denton said. “Here’s a young man who has gone through so much adversity, and he has the biggest smile on his face.”