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St. Charles teen mourned, remembered as a leader

ELBURN – Those who knew Michael D. Fairbanks say they are heartbroken that the 19-year-old died Tuesday at an Elburn home.

“We are all very cheated by this loss,” said Nancy Mullen, executive director of Youth Outlook, an organization committed to providing a safe, supportive and respectful environment for adolescents, whether they identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning.

Fairbanks was Youth Leader of the Year in 2009 for his work with the Youth Outlook organization. Mullen said Fairbanks was generous with his time and, along with Mullen, spoke to groups about student rights issues.

“He was very active in his own school in terms of helping with bullying work and drawing attention to that issue, so schools would be a safe environment,” Mullen said.

Fairbanks, whose last known address was in the 1700 block of Jeanette Avenue in St. Charles, was found unresponsive Tuesday in a house in the 300 block of West Nebraska Street. Elburn and Countryside Fire Department paramedics found him dead when they responded to the house about 3:35 p.m., according to a news release.

Elburn Police Chief Steve Smith said Fairbanks was found in the home of a friend he was visiting. Fairbanks’ friend came home from work and thought he was sleeping at first, Smith said.

“There doesn’t seem to be any foul play,” he said. “There was nobody with this person when he died as far as we know.”

Smith said police are in the early stages of the investigation. Police are interviewing family members to see whether there’s a history of illnesses, and toxicology tests will be performed.

Fairbanks’ aunt, Deyanne Gabriel of West Chicago, said her nephew was involved in activities including the National Honor Society, the honors French club and honors music classes. He graduated early from high school in January 2012 and was concerned with the environment, economics, politics and current events.

Gabriel said Fairbanks was studying full time at Elgin Community College to complete his general education credits before going to the University of Colorado Boulder, where he already had been accepted. She said he had hoped to study business.

She described Fairbanks as mellow, bright, happy, caring and funny. He had tons of friends, and he cared a lot about animals. He was family-oriented and came from a tight-knit family, she added.

“He was a real caring kid,” she said. “He’d give you the shirt off his back. For a young 19-year-old, he kind of had an old soul to him, I thought.”

Paolo Mazza said he had known Fairbanks since both were middle school students. Mazza, now working at an internship in Florida, said he was stunned to hear of his friend's death. He credited Fairbanks with making positive change at St. Charles East, and that Fairbanks had targeted bullying, in particular.

"He made it clear that he wanted bullying to be a thing of the past at our high school," Mazza said. "He eradicated a lot of it. ... We owe a lot to him, really."

Mullen described Fairbanks as very kind and generous and as one of the smartest young men she has worked with. He had a beautiful spirit and soul, she said.

“People gravitated toward him,” Mullen said. “He was a leader.”

Renee Koch, a social worker at St. Charles East, said she was “deeply saddened by the loss of Michael Fairbanks.” She lauded his work with the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance.

“He was a true visionary and advocate for the LGBT community,” Koch said. “His leadership of GSA at East High School brought such an awareness to issues like diversity and bullying. He truly wanted peace and happiness in this world. I will never forget his smile and the lives he touched here.”

Tracy Whiteside, education manager at Fox Valley Repertory, knew Fairbanks since 2007, when the youth ensemble performed “Annie Junior.” She remembers him as a shy kid with a gorgeous voice who came out of his shell and played a lead role in “Oliver” a year later. He played the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz” in 2010, she said.

“I couldn’t think of anyone more perfect for that role,” Whiteside said.

She said she is heartbroken over his death.

“I just don’t have the words to say how horrible I feel for him and his family,” she said.

• Kane County Chronicle reporter Nicole Weskerna and news editor Al Lagattolla contributed to this report.

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