Ralph Verde ’11, whose friends and teachers said he brightened every community he joined, died Friday morning of aggressive brain cancer in his hometown of Little Falls, N.J. He was 23.
Known as an overwhelmingly positive force among his friends, club soccer teammates, professors and Delta Kappa Epsilon brothers, Verde brought optimism and dedication to every part of his well-rounded life at Yale. He came to campus as a member of Morse College in the class of 2011, but was diagnosed with cancer in October 2010 and left campus to begin treatment that fall. Though Verde attempted to resume his studies in the semesters following his diagnosis, his illness ultimately forced him to leave both times.
“We are all blessed to have had him be such a significant part our lives and of this University,” Morse College Master Frank Keil told the News. “He will forever be part of what is the best of Yale.”
During the three years at Yale that preceded his diagnosis, Verde established himself as a bright and hardworking student in the classroom and a resolutely optimistic presence everywhere else.
A history major, Verde was accepted into some of the University’s most sought-after classes. Despite battling cancer, he was admitted to the yearlong “Studies in Grand Strategy” seminar and began both the spring 2011 and fall 2011 semesters of the course. History professor John Gaddis, one of the seminar’s three instructors and Verde’s senior essay advisor, said Verde was “always bright and cheerful and gregarious.”
He brought a similar charisma to C1 soccer — Yale’s upper-level club team, on which he played forward. Though Verde was among the smaller members of the squad, his teammates said he emerged as a clear leader during his freshman year and played with unparalleled dedication.
“Ralph just made Yale a better place, and everyone who was lucky enough to know him was better off because they knew him,” said Nick Selz ’11, one of Verde’s teammates.
Verde worked as a chief master’s aide in Morse College, Keil said, and was a “warm and welcoming” presence at Morse fellows’ meetings. Often, the fellows would spend more time talking to Verde than with each other, Keil added.
Outside of his residential college community, Verde was also a member of DKE and known as “the guy with the jokes” in his fraternity, DKE brother Zach Kafoglis ’13 said.
“He had a unique ability to get along with people in various social circles, whether it was in Morse, club soccer or DKE,” said Andrew Patrick ’12, captain of the men’s club soccer team. “What’s even more remarkable about him is that no matter who you ask in any of those circles, you could never find someone who could say a bad thing about Ralph.”
But the fateful October 2010 diagnosis abruptly took Verde away from his many circles at Yale.
As he prepared to leave campus, Verde broke the news of his inoperable cancer “matter-of-factly,” Gaddis said, and insisted that his illness would not interfere with his return to Yale or his completion of a degree. The required short autobiography that Verde wrote at the beginning of “Grand Strategy” only mentioned cancer once, at the very end, Gaddis added.
“He always knew, of course, that he might not recover — anyone who has brain cancer is aware of the possibility of that,” Gaddis said. “But the important thing is he didn’t let it drag him down.”
Throughout the 12-month battle that followed his diagnosis, Verde determinedly maintained a positive outlook.
While he received cancer treatment at home, Verde seized the time away from school as an opportunity to pursue a lifelong goal of writing a bestselling novel, said his younger brother, Joe. Ralph’s upbeat attitude and conviction that he could overcome the disease gave his family hope, Joe added.
“We truly did believe that Ralph would overcome this situation, just based on the strength and optimism he provided his friends and family with,” Joe said. “It never really struck us that something like this would happen.”
Trumbull College Dean Jasmina Besirevic-Regan GRD ’04, who led Verde and a group of other students on a Yale Summer Session trip to Croatia in 2009, said that he was “determined to fight cancer and use humor as his weapon.” His DKE brothers also said Verde kept a smile on his face after his diagnosis and made a point of visiting the house when he could get to New Haven.
Bridget Hearst ’12, a close friend of Verde’s in Morse, said he was always forward-looking and more concerned with the people around him than with his own struggle. When Verde initially had to shave his head before his first dose of chemotherapy, Hearst said he quickly shifted from feeling upset about his lost hair to reassuring himself that it would grow back once the treatment was finished and his cancer was gone.
“Ever since he was diagnosed with cancer, the whole year or so after, anytime I would visit him or call, always the first thing he said was, ‘Never mind about me, how are you doing?’” Hearst said.
Hearst added that she remained in touch with Verde throughout much of his battle with the illness, working on a documentary about his fight with cancer.
The Saturday before he died, Verde’s mother threw her son a party at their home for his 23rd birthday. Gaddis, who travelled to New Jersey to attend, said the Oct. 22 gathering was bittersweet.
“By then, Ralph was in a wheelchair, really not able to talk, hardly able to move, even,” he said. “But he was watching everything with his eyes. His eyes were so eloquent.”
Despite his deteriorating health, Verde still seemed to have “so much life” that day, said professor Toni Dorfman, who attended the event with Gaddis, her husband.
In a post on the cancer patient support website CaringBridge the following day, Verde’s mother, Fran, thanked those who had attended his party, adding that they stayed up until 2 a.m. opening presents and looking at a scrapbook. Five days later, Verde passed away.
“I love him, I miss him,” his mother said. “I couldn’t be prouder of the 23 years that he gave me.”