NOBLEBORO, Maine — Marcelo Rugini, who died Friday in a plane crash at Knox County Regional Airport, had immense potential to do whatever he wanted to with the sustainable agriculture degree he would have earned next semester from the University of Maine, but his only wish was to remain in Maine.
“He was a very smart individual,” said Bob Spear, owner of Spear’s Vegetable Farm in Nobleboro, which Rugini has called home since coming to the United States six years ago through a program called Communities for Agriculture. “Here at the farm he could do anything, whether it was with the animals or operating machinery. We helped him get into the University of Maine and he’s been doing very well since then. Until now.”
According to Spear, Rugini was studying on a four-year scholarship from the university and worked in the cafeteria to support himself. He was a regular on the university’s dean’s list, including last semester when he earned a perfect 4.0 grade point average.
“Here in America, he saw an opportunity to get an education,” said Spear, who was Maine’s commissioner of agriculture in the King Administration. “The university saw his potential so they awarded him a four-year scholarship. He’s proven them right, too.”
Rugini, 24, who was from Muliterno, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, traveled to Nobleboro from Orono most weekends, where he lived on the Spear farm in an apartment above a garage owned by Jeffrey Spear, who is Bob Spear’s son. Rugini’s last visit with the Spears was last weekend.
“He was like an adopted son of our family,” said Spear. “We were his family in Maine. He hasn’t been home [to Brazil] for four years.”
Rugini was most interested in growing crops and preparing soil for planting. He and some of the other Brazilians who have worked at the Spear Farm over the years enjoyed hosting Brazilian-style barbecues, which involved slow-cooking food on skewers. He was gregarious, hard-working and unilaterally friendly. Spear said there was no job he was unwilling or unable to do.
“His English was limited when he first got here, but you would never know it now,” said Spear. “He was always willing to do anything we asked him. He was that kind of a guy. He was a very valuable employee. He was a friend.”
On Friday, the Spears knew that Rugini was flying with some of his friends in a plane piloted by William “BJ” Hannigan. The plane was owned by the Maine Air Guard Club, according to Tony Caruso, assistant director of Bangor International Airport, where the trio had departed from at around 11:30 a.m. Friday.
At about 4 p.m., less than an hour before the crash, the Spears and some employees saw the plane circling the farm overhead. The pilot, William “BJ” Hannigan, another University of Maine student and close friend of Rugini’s, tipped the plane’s wings at the folks below, which ended up being Rugini’s last communication with the Spears.
Later in the afternoon, the Spears began to see news reports about the plane crash in Owl’s Head and they began to worry. Several hours of frantic calls to airport officials and Rugini’s friends eventually confirmed his tragic death.
“We called his cell phone, but there was never any answer,” said Spear. “Then at about 11:30 that night, they confirmed that it was them in the crash. We didn’t know that they’d be landing in Rockland.”
During Rugini’s first year at the university, the Spears asked him what he wanted to do with his education once it was complete.
“He said ‘believe it or not, I want to continue working for you people,’” said Spear. “We were making plans to bring him back to the farm to work with us. We were going to find a place for him here.”
Spear said Rugini’s family in Brazil are in deep mourning. Lucas Bernardi, one of Rugini’s fraternity brothers at the university, said he’d known Rugini since high school.
“He was my best friend,” said Bernardi, a senior at UMaine. “We were both international students, went to high school together, and were seniors in school together,” he said as his voice broke with emotion.
Plans for funeral services in Maine and a memorial celebration at the Spear Farm are in the works. After that, said Spear, Rugini’s body will be laid to rest in Brazil.
“He was only 24 years old,” said Spear. “He had so much potential. He was liked by everyone and we’ll miss him.”
Bangor Daily News writers Nok-Noi Ricker and Bill Trotter contributed to this report.