Before the start of a 5k run in memory of Northborough ALS victim Matt Bruce, participants raise their arms to repeat Bruce's slogan "Never give up", the phrase he starting using after his diagnosis that became a rallying cry for supporters. Bruce, 26, died of ALS last month. About 700 people came to the Proctor School in Northborough for the Miles for Matt Benefit 5k Run/Walk. Daily News Staff Photo/Ken McGagh
NORTHBOROUGH – When Jennifer Gauvin told Matt Bruce 200 people had signed up for the "Miles for Matt" 5K she organized for him, he told her he couldn’t thank her enough.
"I can never thank you enough for showing me how precious life really is, (and) living every day like it was your last," Gauvin replied in a letter read to a massive crowd blanketing the lawn of Proctor Elementary School on Saturday. "We all know how much this would have meant, and means, to Matt."
The 26-year-old Northborough man died March 21 - two weeks before the race, and less than a year after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a terminal disease that degenerates neurons in the brain and spinal cord.
Saturday, about 700 people – many of whom Matt had invited personally on his Facebook page – showed up to run in his memory, touching members of his family and serving, loved ones said, as a testament to the wide reach of his positive spirit.
"Overwhelming," Lauren Bruce, Matt’s sister, said between hugs from well-wishers a few minutes before the race. Cars from those in attendance spilled onto both sides of several streets surrounding the school, and organizers ran out of registration papers, T-shirts and numbers.
"This is exactly what Matt would have wanted," Lauren Bruce said, marveling at how many people from Northborough, Southborough and Westborough came to pay homage.
"This has brought these communities together," she said. "We’re all a family."
Bruce, who graduated from Algonquin Regional High School, was an embalmer at Mercadante Funeral Home in Worcester when he was diagnosed with the disease. In the eight months since his diagnosis, he kept a positive attitude, going on two trips to Europe, hanging out with friends and attending Boston Bruins games up until the week he died.
His wake was held at the Mercadante home last week, with thousands attending and extending the calling hours to more than six hours.
Bruce’s family decided to donate the money raised from the 5K to Compassionate Care ALS, a Falmouth-based organization they said helped them immensely in the past year.
Compassionate Care founder Ron Hoffman came to Saturday’s race, as he told Bruce he would, and said he was "incredibly moved and touched" by the turnout.
"I saw in Matt - in his eyes - just this wisdom of an incredible elder, far beyond his years," Hoffman said. "I’ve been doing this for a really long, long time, and I’ve not met a young man or a family that has meant any more to me than the Bruce family."
Bruce’s father, Jim Bruce, a sergeant with the Northborough police, got emotional as he looked out at the large crowd assembled outside the school both he and his son attended as children.
"We’re just so humbled by it all," he said a few moments before his sister-in-law, Anne Woodman, took the microphone to read words written by Jim and his family.
"Since the moment he was diagnosed with ALS, Matt never asked why or got mad," Woodman read. "He never complained, even when he had to use a breathing machine, and suction himself constantly, and be fed through a tube.
"Matt just picked himself up and lived on," Woodman read. "Matt lived his dying."
The night that Matt died, his family received a message from Jan Cellucci, the widow of former state governor Paul Cellucci, who also died of ALS.
"Matt reminded (Jan) of Paul in his final weeks – smiling, brave, unbowed," Woodman read. "She found peace knowing that Paul, like Matt, had conquered ALS.
"From this day forward, let’s all be like Matt and Paul," Woodman said as family members embraced behind her. "(Let’s) live each day to the fullest, and love one another, and help one another through this very short time we have on Earth."
Before the teary-eyed runners headed for the starting line, Gauvin had them do one last thing for Bruce, who, throughout his ordeal, had a saying that served as an inspiration for himself and others.
On a count of three, all those in the crowd – children, town officials, police officers – extended their arms to the sky and repeated the Matt Bruce credo: "Never give up."
Brad Petrishen can be reached at 508-490-7463 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BPetrishen_MWDN.