Helen and John DeMario, of Port Republic, held a picture of their son Jonathan DeMario, who lost his life to cancer last year.

Dave Griffin

Jonathan DeMario was a strong student and passionate scientist, but more than that, he was a doting brother, son and friend.

In 2006, DeMario, who had gone back to Rutgers University to pursue a degree in environmental engineering after spending a few years as a physicist, was named the school's Student of the Year in his field.

His award ceremony fell on the same day as his younger brother Andrew's graduation from Lafayette College, so rather than take the spotlight, DeMario discreetly accepted his award before joining his family at Lafayette. After the graduation, he told his parents of his award, almost as an aside.

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This sort of self-effacement was typical of DeMario, 34, who died in February 2012 after a brief battle with blood cancer.

Shortly after DeMario's death, his parents, Helen and John, of Port Republic, established the Jonathan DeMario Memorial Scholarship Fund. This year, they gave four $500 awards to high school members of the Class of 2013 pursuing careers in science, in what John said was a fitting tribute to his son.

"It's really good to see young people like that, achieving and working hard," DeMario said of the first class of honorees. "I know Jonathan would just be thrilled to try to help."

DeMario, an avid athlete whose barrel chest and broad shoulders would not have been out of place in an NFL locker room, was the picture of health, at least outwardly, in summer 2011. He ran marathons, and was out for a jog when he began to feel sharp pain in his back and legs.

After visits to a series of doctors, it was determined that DeMario's pain was caused by a pair of small fractures in his back, the result of a structural breakdown caused by a rare cancer called multiple myeloma, which eats away at bone marrow and interferes with the production of blood cells.

Shortly after his diagnosis, DeMario was admitted to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where he at first appeared to respond well to treatment. While multiple myeloma is not considered curable, patients often can live five years or more with treatment. But on Thanksgiving, days before he was to receive a life-prolonging bone marrow donation from his brother, it was discovered the cancer had spread to his brain. Barely two months later, he died.

DeMario's parents asked that donations be made to the scholarship fund in lieu of flowers. That summer, many of DeMario's friends organized a softball tournament in his honor, donating the proceeds to the fund, and a Halloween dodgeball tournament further bolstered the funds.

With the help of DeMario's longtime friend Aaron Wohlraab, who teaches chemistry at Ocean City High School and Richard Stockton College, DeMario's parents distributed scholarship applications to several high schools, and more than two-dozen students submitted their names for consideration.

This year's award recipients were Logan Walsh, of Pilgrim Academy; Hasina Noory and Saad Sohail, of Absegami High School; and Jordan Biagi, of Atlantic City High School.

Wohlraab and the DeMarios presented the awards in-person at the schools' respective awards nights. While giving out the awards was painful, especially at Absegami, DeMario's alma mater, Helen said she was glad to give them out.

"When we looked at the kids who got it, we felt good about that," DeMario said. "Who knows, the one girl wants to be a doctor. Maybe she'll, you know, find the cure?"

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