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The Kid Who Won 'The Kid's' Heart

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John McGee of Long Beach had just gotten off the phone with an old friend, Ed O'Donnell of Bethpage, when simultaneously one January day they heard that Gary Carter had beenvoted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Separately, each grinned and shuddered, as they thought of the same person.

McGee (class of '70) and O'Donnell ('72) had attended Mater Christi High School (now called St. John's Prep) in Astoria, Queens, McGee commuting from Jackson Heights, O'Donnell from Woodside. Through a series of years, coincidences and crossed paths, they later met and married women who were friends of people whose social circles overlapped repeatedly. Thus, McGee and O'Donnell and a posse of others with childhood connections became lifelong friends as adults, surrogate uncles and aunts of each others' kids.

O'Donnell can recall the day in 1984 when he first encountered McGee's second child, his young son, Justin, and Justin's red hair and fetching disposition. The families vacationed together in the Poconos for years after that, and O'Donnell recalls being fascinated by Justin McGee.

"He had the most amazing outlook on life," O'Donnell wrote in an e-mail. "He was adventuresome, a leader, somebody the other kids looked up to. Funny, really funny. He had an awesome sense of humor. I remember the year he whipped me in three games in a row of Battleship, finally telling his 'Uncle' Ed that we would have to replay the games because he could see the locations of my ships reflected in my aviator sunglasses. He couldn't take advantage of anybody, even an old guy.

"He was mature way beyond his years," O'Donnell wrote. "He just seemed to 'know,' to 'get it,' if you know what I mean. Our only child, Ciara, was close to Justin, probably because he loved her, protected her and made sure she wasn't left out of anything. But he did that for every one of the younger kids. He was very protective of his two younger sisters, Shannon and Kerrin, and, although Brian was the older brother, Justin was the one with the 'seniority.'

"He loved Little League, too. He wanted to catch and wear his hero's No. 8, Gary Carter, 'The Kid.' He caught for a while, but the coach thought he was a better first baseman, so he drifted away from baseball. Carter was his hero."

In June 1998, Justin graduated from Oceanside High School. By that time, the "Pocono families" had decided to vacation separately. Justin, then 17, and the McGees were planning a Caribbean cruise in August. At lunch on graduation day, Justin discovered a lump near his clavicle. Subsequent testing confirmed a diagnosis of germ cell tumor, a rare form of cancer.

Optimists, the family postponed the cruise until the next year. Justin endured radiation and chemotherapy to treat tumors that seemed to be showing up everywhere, and by February 1999, he was admitted to Mercy Hospital in Rockville Centre to remove tumors in the frontal lobe of his brain, one of which had hemorrhaged.

"When I arrived that night," O'Donnell wrote, "Pinky [Justin's mother, Charlee], said we were losing Justin and to prepare ourselves. He had between 24 and 48 hours.

"Family was notified," O'Donnell wrote. "Friends started showing up from everywhere ... Florida, California, Colorado." McGee said that a nurse who happened to be a friend from high school helped as many as 50 people hold prayer vigils outside the ICU. Priests showed up. High school kids staged a mass recitation of the rosary on the front lawn. [John] McGee's broker friends and colleagues from the New York Stock Exchange held hands and prayed with clerics, friends and family members.

Impossibly, miraculously, Justin rallied. Surgeon Louis Cornacchia scheduled a second operation to remove a tumor on the brain Feb. 5, and it was successful.

Following 20 radiation treatments and weeks of physical therapy, Justin returned home on March 19, but doctors then discovered a tumor on his spine. On April 17, he began 20 more radiation treatments.

In June, knowing he was terminal but hoping they could provide him with some good days, Justin's parents sent him to West Palm Beach, Fla., to stay with an uncle, James Cima, a chiropractor and holistic health practitioner.

Justin became strong enough to take the cruise with his father and siblings, and McGee said recently that while there, Justin managed to participate in every activity he could find, from jet-skiing to parasailing to night-clubbing to a black-tie dinner aboard ship. Justin told his father that it was the best week of his life.

While in Florida, McGee learned that Cima's son, James Jr., rode the school bus with Gary Carter's son. Cima arranged for the McGees to meet Carter at his home. They arrived early. The Carters were just finishing dinner. McGee said that Carter was as gracious as anyone he had ever met. He gave the boys a tour of his house, including his catcher's mitt-shaped pool, and showed them his sports memorabilia-stocked den, with 11 All-Star rings, the game ball for Game 7 of the 1986 World Series and a wall bearing thousands of Topps Baseball Cards. Carter autographed a photo, a ball and a copy of his autobiography for the boys.

The next day, McGee and Justin were shopping in a local mall to buy a baseball trophy case for the ball, when they were approached by Carter's wife, Sandy, and her daughter, who were shopping, also. They asked after Justin's health. The McGees were flabbergasted by their genuine concern.

Soon after, Justin took the turn for the worse that everyone had anticipated and dreaded. While McGee visited Justin in the hospital, his son Brian asked uncle James Cima to call Gary Carter and tell him the news.

Carter showed up at the hospital two hours later, carrying a big stuffed animal and greeting him with a big smile and a characteristically enthusiastic, "Hey, Justin!" Carter stayed with Justin for 20 minutes. John McGee told Carter that the next time he expected to see him, it would be in the Hall of Fame. Commercial airlines were reluctant to take a chance on flying Justin back to New York. McGee's stock exchange friends, including Al Smith IV and Mike Heywood, arranged for a private, medically staffed and equipped jet, and reserved a room for Justin at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, where he died Sept. 6, 1999. He had just turned 19.

Gary Carter sent his prayers and condolences, and McGee wrote back that, with Justin surely where he was now (and, not that Carter needed the help), he would be getting into the Hall of Fame for certain. McGee said he would try to be at the induction, but he felt certain that Justin would.

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.


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