Aaron Belanger loved politics. He could easily charm people and win them over, and hoped to go to law school and run campaigns one day.
But Belanger died seven months ago when he was just 21 years old and cancer cut short all of those dreams. His family, however, carried out a final accomplishment for him Friday when they accepted Belanger's posthumous diploma at LSU's graduation.
Before students in purple robes strolled across the graduation stage and switched their tassels atop their caps, LSU Manship School of Mass Communication Dean Jerry Ceppos recognized Belanger's parents in front of the other celebratory families in the Student Union Theater. Kristen Belanger, the mother of Aaron, hugged Ceppos and nodded her head before the audience rose to its feet, cheering them on.
"He was always on the move," said his father, Paul Belanger, after the ceremony. "He wanted to do everything. It's like he never had a bad day in his life."
Kennan Soulé Word was born into a swimming family and, from the age of 4, spent her summers swimming with the Kenilworth Superstars Swim team.
Their son grew up in Baton Rouge and graduated in 2013 from Catholic High School. He was a backstroker, and coached swim teams and basketball teams around Baton Rouge. Belanger's parents described him as goofy instigator, frequently the one to convene his friends.
He inherited towhead blonde locks from his dad and had a wide, easygoing smile. His dad teased him about how they rarely saw him study, but Belanger managed to make good grades, and his son would prod back by saying he was good at talking his way into success.
Belanger interned at U.S. Rep. Garret Graves' office in Washington, D.C. and Graves attended the graduation ceremony Friday. The Baton Rouge congressman said a health care scare like Belanger's may have been the wake-up call other people needed to evaluate how they were living, but Belanger had already recognized his talents and used them to give back to the community before he became sick.
"The loss of Aaron has been a very painful experience for all of us, with a high cost," Graves said. "But I will tell you, the benefit of knowing him, the benefit of watching him give back to our community, the benefit of him selflessly using his gifts and giving back to his public was absolutely, absolutely worth it."
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Belanger started complaining about back pain in the summer of 2016 when doctors eventually discovered a tumor on his spine. Doctors across the region tried different treatments with chemotherapy, radiation and surgery but Belanger did not respond to it, his parents said.
Doctors determined he had cancer of the unknown primary, where cancer cells are found in the body but their origin point is not discovered. They never found the source of it, but Belanger eventually lost the use of his hands and legs. A few months before he died in May, Graves brought Belanger to the National Prayer Breakfast, which Belanger's parents said was one of his best memories before he died May 9, 2017.
The diploma for Belanger was one of 1,591 degrees that LSU awarded on Friday. They included 1,295 bachelor’s degrees; 211 master’s and professional degrees or certificates; and 85 doctoral degrees. Graduates came from 41 foreign countries, 36 states and 49 parishes within Louisiana. Slightly more women were represented in the graduating class, with 51.6 percent women and 48.4 percent men.
An LSU graduate was fatally shot in Texas on Sunday, according to a report.
LSU President F. King Alexander said he was especially proud that this fall's graduating class had the highest number of degrees awarded to African American and Hispanic students out of any fall semester.