Under a foggy sky, hundreds of people gathered in a northeast Fresno church Saturday to say goodbye to another former Buchanan High School student who died in the Mideast wars.
Marine Sgt. Matthew Abbate, 26, died of a head wound Dec. 2 while serving in Afghanistan. On Saturday morning, more than 400 attended his funeral at Peoples Church in Fresno.
Among them were about 100 who had heard that Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas-based group known for its extreme views, had selected Abbate's funeral for a protest.
The church had issued a news release Tuesday about its plans. The group has generated controversy nationwide for protesting at soldiers' funerals, saying that the deaths are God's way of punishing the nation for allowing homosexuality and abortion.
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They didn't show up, and nobody from Westboro could be reached Saturday for an explanation. But they weren't missed, according to the counter-protesters, dozens of whom formed a human wall in front of the church as a precaution.
"I support the family, and I support the young man," said Cathy Krout of Clovis, who didn't know Abbate. "The protest is disrespectful and not desired."
The focus of the day was on Abbate -- and his contagious smile.
Led by a solemn, flag-filled procession, Abbate's casket arrived at the church, carried by six fellow Marines. Inside the church, a montage of photographs detailed his life from happy-go-lucky toddler to camouflaged soldier.
In nearly every photo, Abbate flashed his trademark bright smile.
As his casket lay at the front of the church, fellow Marine Royce Hughie remembered that smile.
"It was an honor to fight by his side," Hughie said. "He was protective, confident and fearless. And he had that smile that could make everyone happy."
Abbate was on his third deployment, after serving in Iraq and on training assignments in Australia, Okinawa, Japan, and other locations. He had attended Buchanan High for three years before graduating from Sierra Charter School in the Fresno Unified School District.
Abbate was the eighth former Buchanan High School student killed in the Mideast wars.
Longtime friend Eric Busse remembered Abbate as someone with an exuberance for life. He joked that at times his love of life "exceeded the tolerance of others, including parents and teachers."
And even though Busse was a year younger and a grade below Abbate, the two remained steadfast friends for years, visiting each other often.
"Thank you Matt for being there for me," said Busse, fighting back tears. "And thank you for letting me into your life."
Although Abbate lived only 26 years, many said his influence on family and friends will last long.
Elliot Abbate said he will miss his big brother, whom he credits as being one of the biggest influences in his life. He said he idolized his brother's courage, charm, passion and smile.
"I will cherish our time together more than you can imagine," Elliot Abbate said. "But you have taught me the importance of commitment to oneself and a love of life."
The foggy morning turned sunny as Abbate's casket was taken from the church and placed in a hearse for a burial at the Snelling Pioneer Cemetery in Snelling.