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Cal U community turns out to benefit family of cancer victim

| Tuesday, May 7, 2002

Two years after graduation, Pablo Manuel Priego Velasquez remains on the minds and in the hearts of students at California University of Pennsylvania.

The Cal U alumnus died in a Mexican hospital last week, having succumbed to a cancer that it seemed he had beaten years earlier.

A memorial service was held in his honor on the campus of Cal U, sponsored by the Hispanic Student Association. Later, members of Acadia fraternity held a car wash to benefit Velasquez's family.

That event was latest in an ongoing series of fund raisers that will continue into the fall.

The fact that people would turn out to help the family of a young man who has been gone from the Cal U campus for some time isn't surprising, say those who knew him best. He touched many lives, they recall.

Velasquez's connection to southwestern Pennsylvania was unique.

Several years ago missionaries from Waynesburg took a trip to Mexico City. Velasquez was their guide.

A friendship grew and Velasquez eventually visited Waynesburg.

It was when he returned to Mexico that he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on his knee. His options were limited - have the leg removed, or come to the United States for surgery and treatment that might save it.

The missionary family in Waynesburg brought Velasquez back, and his treatment was a success. He even finished high school in Waynesburg and began college at California University of Pennsylvania.

The summer before his senior year at Cal U, Velasquez worked four jobs: in food service, on the ground and paint crews and in residence life computing services. Once the 1999-2000 school year began, he continued his busy schedule, working two jobs while maintaining a 3.27 grade-point average in manufacturing technology. He was a cum laude graduate.

Graduation ceremonies were something his mother and sister got to see first-hand, thanks to the generosity of some local people.

When it was discovered that Velasquez had not been home to Mexico in three years, "Operation Pablo" was launched on campus to raise funds to bring his mother and sister to Cal U for graduation in the spring of 2000.

Things took a turn for the worse later, when Velasquez's cancer returned and spread. He died in his native home of Mexico City April 29.

Tim Phillips, social rush chairman for Acadia, said last week's car wash fund raiser was a part of the fraternity's philanthropic efforts.

Acadia held a car bash several weeks ago for the same cause, raising $120, Phillips said.

The fraternity is planning a benefit concert with the assistance of university officials, Phillips said, though it may not occur until the start of the 2002-03 school year.

"We're running out of time this semester," Phillips acknowledged.

Velasquez was a graduate assistant in charge of overseeing other students in Longdecker Hall dormitory. Phillips lived in that dormitory with Velasquez.

"He was always happy, always upbeat," Phillips said.

"Everybody was pretty upset when he left (for cancer treatments). I felt he could get the best care up here, but he wanted to be with his family so he went back to Mexico."

Cal U student and car wash participant T.J. McAloon said he just wanted to help out the community and Velasquez's family.

"It's bad enough when anyone gets cancer, but when it's someone from Cal U it hurts even more because it's someone from our inner circle," McAloon said.

Crystal Slunski recalled Velasquez's positive attitude even while battling cancer.

"I asked him, 'Are you sad because you have cancer?'" Slunski recalled. "He said, 'No, I'm just happy I met the people of Cal U.'

"I was really sad when he died."

Dr. Angelo Armenti, president of California University of Pennsylvania, periodically allows himself to be "auctioned" off for good causes - such as to wash cars for the Velasquez fund. Armenti said that is one way he encourages the students to get involved in fund-raisers for charitable causes.

"I'm very proud of the students," Armenti said. "The fraternities and sororities are sometimes criticized for not being good citizens. This is an example of them being good citizens."

With sponge in one hand and a hose in the other, Armenti added, "This is my way of encouraging them."

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