Jennifer Nelson:Finding solace in borrowed words

Words do not often fail me. But as I struggle to make sense of Nicholas Leonetti’s death, I find myself in unfamiliar territory.

I am angry, confused and sad.

Angry that it happened, confused about the reason. And sad that Nicholas Leonetti presumably felt out of place, that he did not seem to have what my good friend Matt LaPlante once called “A Place in this Placeless World.”

Consumed by my anger and confusion and sadness, it is LaPlante’s words that give me solace. And it is his words that inspire when my own fall short.

Matt LaPlante and I met at Oregon State University, where we worked together first at the student newspaper and then later at the local daily. He was truly a Jack of all trades, a news editor, columnist and reporter. He was well-known and respected for all three, but it was his column writing that touched me (and many) most.

LaPlante’s columns were better than any of the awards they won. They created dialogue, which I can attest is not an easy thing to do, and healed wounds, which is even harder. Most of all, they made sense of our world – and of our place in the world – in a way I have not seen since. He’s a news reporter now at the McMinnville News-Register, but his reputation as a columnist lives on in our small group of friends, and now here, through me.

It was the week after the shootings at Columbine High School that LaPlante penned a column titled “Finding a place in a placeless world.” In it, he argued that young people, but especially students, continually struggle with finding their “place.” He went on to write just how important place is, how important it is for us all to have people and places and things that give our lives meaning, that make our lives worth living.

Did Nicholas Leonetti have a place? I do not know. Sadly, I never knew Nicholas Leonetti.

But I do know that five days a week I am engulfed by the sea of faces that is Portland State University. This place can be hard to navigate. It is easy to see how this place that has so much potential for so many things can offer absolutely nothing to the wrong person.

Maybe Leonetti felt that way. Maybe it was too much.

Unfortunately, we may never know what happened Tuesday and why it happened the way it did. We may never know why the 23-year-old student, whose professors remember for his charm, intelligence and warmth, fell from the Montgomery Street sky bridge. Why he died later that day. Whether or not this place was enough.

My heart aches for his family.

At the same time, I am thankful for my place. For Matt LaPlante. And for his words. For you.

And I am hopeful that next time – there won’t be a next time. That now and in the future we will all find a place in this placeless world.