Life Stories

Life Stories: Seven-year-old Leo Bortiri's energetic life ended too soon

CorrespondentFebruary 23, 2014 

  • Leonardo “Leo” Itzak Bortiri

    Born: Feb. 25, 2006, in Berkeley, Calif.

    Family: Moved to Durham in 2008 with his parents, Rachel Raney and Esteban Bortiri, and his dog, Nelly. His grandparents are Carolyn and Curt Raney and grandmother Ana Maria Bortiri.

    Education: Attended preschool at Kin in Durham and was in the second grade at George Watts Montessori Magnet Elementary School in Durham.

    Best friends: Luke Musser, Cyrus Porter and Oskar Schulmeister-Antona.

    Died: Dec. 19, 2013, in Argentina

On a family trip to Argentina in December, Leo Bortiri was sailing across a large lake in the Andes when he noticed fellow passengers were feeding some birds. The child became quite concerned. As a Junior Seashore Ranger, a title he earned last summer in Ocracoke, he took a pledge to protect America’s national parks by, among other things, not feeding wildlife.

At just 7 years old, he was quite principled. When his mother, Rachel Raney, asked whether he would like to feed the birds as well, he said, “Yes, but I can’t because I’m a Junior Ranger.”

Leo was having the time of his life on that trip. He climbed mountains, crossed glaciers, swam in freezing lakes and ate as much pasta as his belly could hold while visiting relatives of his father, Esteban Bortiri.

The five-week journey they planned entailed ambitious, hourslong hikes after which the family of three spent nights nestled in mountainside cabins called refugios. For Leo, an adventurous child who seemed in “perpetual motion,” his mother said, spending seven hours hiking the Argentine Andes and crossing a glacier while donning a helmet and holding on to a safety line was the definition of fun. He and his father counted 14 waterfalls one day.

But about two weeks into the trip, Leo was climbing some rocks on the side of a road and fell. The second-grader at George Watts Montessori Magnet Elementary School died from head injuries and a broken neck, and his parents came home to Durham having to plan his memorial service, and where they would scatter his ashes.

He would have turned 8 on Tuesday.

Stopping at the ‘kissing tree’

His parents know they will scatter at least some of his ashes at Ocracoke – he adored his beach week there each summer. But the center of his universe was his school.

“He wanted to go early every day,” Raney said.

She walked him, or more recently, kept up with him as he nearly ran the three blocks to school every morning. They had their “kissing tree” along the way because he was too big to kiss his Mama at the door anymore.

And afterward, he unleashed what was left of his pent-up energy (his favorite subject was still PE, though math and science were gaining interest) by running around the playground, often with his three best friends.

“Leo ran in a pack of four,” his mother said. He had been friends with the same three boys from his school for years, and within that pack was Oskar Schulmeister-Antona. They lived around the corner from one another, and most mornings Leo climbed a tree in his front yard to wait for Oskar so they could walk to school together.

“He loved telling me jokes,” Oskar said. “His favorite joke was, ‘What did the cake say to the fork? Wanna piece of me?’ 

‘A good little citizen’

When he wasn’t cutting his comedic teeth on knock-knock jokes, Leo was biking, playing on his soccer team or maybe feeding his hens in his backyard. One of his jobs, in addition to feeding his dog, Nelly, was to gather the eggs. He sold the eggs to neighbors, and his parents deposited the earnings in a savings account. They plan to donate the amount he saved to the hospital in Argentina, where he was treated for free.

Leo often accompanied his parents on altruistic endeavors, such as cleaning up a nearby creek or a dilapidated park.

“He liked being a good little citizen,” his mother said.

At night, he would have read for hours if his parents allowed. He was following in his father’s footsteps as an avid comic fan, and the “Asterix” series was his favorite. Because the comic was set in ancient Rome, Leo loved it when his father did the voices for the Gauls and the Romans.

Leo had just recently learned how to write his entire name correctly. He also recently learned how to play the theme to “Star Wars” on the piano. He took lessons for about two years at the urging of his grandmother, “Mammaw” Carolyn Raney of Durham. She has decided to fill Leo’s spot with his teacher and learn in his honor.

“He loved music, including my very old rock ’n’ roll favorites,” she said at his memorial service. “Watching him dance was a sight to behold. There was nothing like it.”

Remembering a fearless person

It is impossible for his loved ones to make sense of the accident. Though his parents requested that in lieu of flowers donations be made to Watts Montessori, there is no cause to pick up in its wake, only the cruel awareness that tragedy happens, even to “golden” 7-year-old boys.

But in those seven years, he loved others openly and honestly – a testament to the love he received from his parents, his grandmother said. He reassured anxious friends, had patience with their younger siblings and, without knowing it, served as an example.

“One Halloween Leo dressed up as a storm trooper, and I was a devil, and we went on the Hope Valley Halloween train together. When a ghost train was passing by, there was a werewolf on it. He was really scary, and Leo was brave enough to touch him,” Oskar said.

“Leo was fearless.”

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