Most people say they’ve never met anyone quite like Luigi Zanettin.
As a son, he always carved out time to fish and hunt with his dad and once gave up six months’ worth of Saturdays to help his father refurbish a fire truck for firefighters in Africa.
As a husband, he bought his wife flowers every week and worked two jobs while attending school so they could build a future together.
As a student, he never missed class and his curiosity-driven questions propelled him to the top of his program. Even after he was delivered a blow in 2013 when he found out he had a rare form of cancer, he never slowed down.
“When he had every reason to say I’ve had enough, he fought against it,” said Dr. Bill Altenhof, a University of Windsor mechanical and materials engineering professor who mentored the 27-year-old through graduate studies. “He just simply would never quit; I was awestruck by his level of determination.”
Zanettin fought the aches and pains, the weight loss and weakness from radiation and chemotherapy. His rhabdomyosarcoma — a disease that causes cancer cells to form in muscle tissue — caused vision loss and weakness that left him dependent on a cane.
“We were just lost, completely lost. But he didn’t let it slow him down,” said Silvana Rotulo, Zanettin’s wife. “A lot of people thought he should take a leave of absence from school. He said it was the only thing he had control of.”
Zanettin, determined to finish his Master of Applied Science (MASc) degree, would bring his laptop to the cancer clinic during chemotherapy treatments and later, to hospice, when he was too weak to stay at home. Weeks before he passed away peacefully surrounded by family and friends on July 10, 2014, UWindsor president Alan Wildeman made a special trip to The Hospice of Windsor & Essex County Inc. to confer Zanettin’s MASc degree.
"Luigi brought two extraordinary gifts to the University of Windsor. One was his talent and dedication as an outstanding student. The other was how he taught us to never cease pursuing our dreams, no matter what obstacles we face,” Wildeman said. “Conferring a master's degree on Luigi in the presence of his family and friends was something I will never forget.”
Rotulo called the mini convocation “incredible.”
“He was so happy. I’ve never seen him so humble and proud at the same time. He wanted that master’s degree so badly and he didn’t want to give up. His willpower was like this unbelievable force.”
Zanettin’s drive and devotion to his education prompted professor Jacqueline Stagner to establish a scholarship in his name. Donations came flooding in from family, friends and people who were touched by Zanettin’s story and in less than four months, the $25,000 required for endowment was reached. Starting in fall 2017, a $1,000 Luigi Zanettin Memorial Scholarship will be given annually to a student who transfers from an advanced technology diploma at a college to an undergraduate engineering program at UWindsor — the same academic path Zanettin took. Preference will be given to a student who, like Zanettin, exhibits leadership skills and is highly motivated.
Zanettin’s father, Roger, said he was moved when he found out about the memorial scholarship and the outpouring of support that followed. He said his wife, Sharon Zanettin, who passed away six months after Lou’s death, would’ve been so proud.
“It’s nice to keep Lou’s name alive,” he said about his only child. “He couldn’t have been a better son. He was a perfect kid, he just was.”
After graduating from St. Clair College with a diploma in Mechanical Engineering Technology-Automotive Product Design, Zanettin attended UWindsor to pursue a bachelor and master’s degree in mechanical engineering. Throughout his years of schooling, Luigi worked in Stuttgart, Germany with GoTech, completed a co-op placement with FCA Canada in Windsor and supported faculty and students as a university graduate assistant.
While completing his MASc degree, he designed a complex, comprehensive computer model that helps automotive engineers understand how children are affected during side impact collisions. His contributions to child safety have been published in the International Journal of Crashworthiness and presented at an international conference — achievements few MASc students attain, according to professor Altenhof.
Zanettin also surpassed several professors’ expectations when he led a team in the design, development and construction of a Hopkinson’s Split Pressure Bar Apparatus. This piece of equipment — rarely seen and unique to only a few institutions — uses ballistics and sophisticated structures and transducers to analyze how materials behave during high-speed impacts. Altenhof said the application of the equipment is sought after by industry and will continue educating UWindsor students for years to come.
When Roger Zanettin’s colleagues at Windsor Fire & Rescue Services learned about the scholarship, they knew they wanted to help.
“We’re a family. When someone loses a child, you’re there to help in any way you can,” said Jim Romanko, a fireman and chair of the Windsor Firefighters Benefit Fund. “When I heard they wanted to come up with something to ensure Lou’s name lives on in a field that he gave so much to in such a short time, we had to be a part of it.”
Through individual donations, chili cook-offs and bingos, the charity branch of the Windsor Firefighters raised $6,000. Several of Roger’s colleagues even showed up at hospice for Zanettin’s convocation with a big sign strung across a firetruck that said “Congratulations, Lou!”
Romanko recalls the funeral and seeing very few dry eyes — firefighters included.
“It was one of the most emotional events I’ve ever been to,” he said. “When they celebrated his life and explained everything that he had done and what he was up against, the battle and everything, you couldn’t help but be inspired.”
The University of Windsor and the Zanettin family would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to everyone who donated to the Luigi Zanettin Memorial Scholarship. A sincere thanks to Roger Zanettin, Silvana Rotulo, Dr. Jacqueline Stagner, Dr. Bill Altenhof & family, the Windsor Firefighters Benefit Fund, Dave & Barbara Bjarneson and Gary & Janice Inkratas for making this inspiring memorial gift possible.