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How the Ryan Shaw 5K, born of tragedy, became a ‘can’t-miss’ event for the Northeastern community.

In 2016, a Northeastern freshman died suddenly of bacterial meningitis. An annual road race in his honor has helped his loved ones heal — and raised over $1 million for charity.

A blue and green graphic of people running in a 5K race.
Graphic by Michelle Musili/Northeastern University

A few days after the end of the 2016 spring semester, Ryan Shaw was resting up after an action-packed first year at Northeastern. He spent the fall semester in Dublin as part of the university’s program, where he formed a close-knit group of friends that included Brendan Slattery. 

“We were both really big, obnoxious Boston sports fans, so we relished the opportunity to watch Patriots games together,” says Slattery, now 25. Back on the Boston campus in the spring, Shaw took classes at the D’Amore McKim School of Business toward a finance degree.

At his family’s home in Wakefield, Massachusetts, Shaw was looking forward to a relaxing summer — spending time with his close-knit family at the Cape and trekking into Boston with his Northeastern buddies. But one morning, his father Scott remembers, he complained of a headache. “I was trying to feed him, giving him Gatorade, thinking he just wasn’t feeling well,” Scott Shaw says. But the pain soon got bad enough that they rushed him to the hospital. Within two hours, Ryan was placed in a medically induced coma.

Twelve hours later, he was gone.

Ryan Shaw’s sudden death from bacterial meningitis, just shy of his 19th birthday, is a permanent wound for his friends and family. “We had the next four years planned,” Slattery says. “You just feel like you’re invincible at 18 years old, and then there was nothing.”

But it’s not the end of this story. In the tragedy’s wake, Ryan’s loved ones and fellow Northeastern students came together to think of a way to honor him — and hit upon something that, despite its origin in unspeakable sadness, is a joyous occasion they look forward to each year.

It’s a happy event. And I’ve gotta tell you, the first few years it was not, for us.

Scott Shaw, Ryan Shaw’s father

This Nov. 4 will mark the seventh annual Ryan Shaw Memorial 5K, a road race coordinated by current and graduated members of the Boston-area Pi Kappa Alpha (Pike) fraternity, which Shaw joined as a freshman. (While Northeastern students are members of the fraternity, the Kappa Delta chapter of the Pikes is not recognized or supported by the university). Run on a route over the Charles River straddling Boston and Cambridge, it’s become the fraternity’s marquee event of the year, drawing around 1,000 runners annually and raising money for a trio of charities important to the Shaw family.

“This is our biggest thing,” says Mike Bernard, a fifth-year Northeastern student who chairs the 5K’s planning committee. “It’s the one everyone shows up for. People fly in from Minnesota and California to help out.”

Northeastern’s involvement is more direct this year than in the past, with the university’s City and Community Engagement Office helping with outreach. But the race has been a de facto university event from the start — students, alumni, other university fraternity and sorority chapters and members of the school’s athletic teams have taken part.  

The mood has evolved over the years as well — especially for those closest to Ryan.

“It’s a happy event,” Scott Shaw says. “And I’ve gotta tell you, the first few years it was not, for us. It’s about five years in where you can focus on the good things and less on what you’re missing.”

A new community

Grief, for better or worse, is a social unifier, and Ryan Shaw’s death deepened bonds between several groups of people who existed on each other’s peripheries before the tragedy. The youngest of three, Ryan grew up in Wakefield, surrounded by friends of his older brother, Connor. “He was one of those very brave younger brothers who could take a lot of s*** from me and my friends,” Connor Shaw remembers. The brothers loved to go crabbing on the Cape, and while Connor stuck to the shore and used nets and fishing line, Ryan would venture out into chest-high waters, catching them with his bare hands. “He was fearless,” Connor Shaw says.

Ryan Shaw and Slattery’s older brother went to the same high school, St. John’s Prep in Danvers, where Ryan developed business concepts with his friends and excelled as an artist. One of his paintings, of a sailboat at sunset, won a top prize in a state-level competition and was showcased at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

In a coincidence they laughed about later, Slattery’s mother and Ryan got in a fender bender when Ryan was still in high school, before the two freshmen ever met at Northeastern. Nearly a year later, at their campus orientation for, “she’s looking at this kid who’s [assigned to be] my roommate, asking ‘How do I know you?’” Slattery says. “He had hit my mom.”

In the months after Ryan’s death, Slattery and Ryan’s other close friends began working with the Shaws to create a charity event in his honor. They tossed around a few ideas, quickly deciding on a 5K run because “it was something that could survive beyond our tenure at Northeastern,” Slattery says. “You can hold it annually, and it can be less about the race itself and more about having people get together.”

In its six years, the race has raised about $1 million for three charities through the Ryan Shaw Foundation, all with a connection to Ryan’s life. Mustard Seed Communities, an international nonprofit, provides shelter and services to disabled children and vulnerable women in countries including Jamaica and the Dominican Republic — Ryan worked with the charity on a high school service trip and kept in touch with some of the children he met there. 

Ryan’s mother, Joanne, has worked closely with the Massachusetts-based Haven Project since 2011; she remains passionate about the charity because of its work with homeless and otherwise vulnerable teens close to Ryan’s age when he passed. “We are supporting children who don’t have the same network or parents that Ryan had, to give him the life he had,” Joanne Shaw says. “It seems appropriate.”

The third beneficiary is the Ryan Shaw ’15 Entrepreneurial Program, a business concept incubator at Ryan’s high school alma mater, St. John’s Prep. In addition to the Shaws contributing proceeds to run the program, Ryan’s siblings, Connor and older sister Maddie, sit on a “Shark Tank”-style panel each year and hear the high schoolers pitch their ideas.

Grief evolves

In the early years of the race, the prospect of facing a sea of people connected to Ryan felt almost unendurable for his family — Scott Shaw admits he had to gear himself up for it. But their relationship to the event has evolved as their grieving has taken on new, often cathartic dimensions. “We’re always floored by the number of people we see — parents of friends from high school, a family that we had gone on ski trips with,” Joanne Shaw says. “In some ways, it’s like your wedding day; every minute you’re saying hello to somebody. And so the day flies by.”

Pi Kappa Alpha, meanwhile, took special consideration to ensure the event’s sustainability beyond the first few years, even changing its bylaws to create an elected position in charge of overseeing the race. Slattery says that now, a few years after he and Ryan’s other close friends have graduated and left the fraternity, those steps seem to be paying off. “We anticipated a decline [in race sign-ups], but so far we’ve been pleasantly surprised,” he says. “There are people who didn’t know Ryan and have no association to Northeastern, but they’ve come four consecutive years because it’s a nice road race.” The 5K even made it through the pandemic — since going fully virtual in 2020, the event has offered both in-person and virtual participation options each year.

That endurance is comforting to Slattery, who has remained heavily involved with the race even after graduating and moving to the Bay Area. Planning the event has kept him close to the Shaws beyond the initial shared tragedy. “It’s been great to walk through this whole journey with them, and seeing what was a really awful experience for everybody blossom into a lifelong friendship,” he says.

He still feels the weight of Ryan’s absence with each passing year, each personal milestone. “It makes me really sad that he and I were in a similar place in life. And how there’s no rhyme or reason to why this happened to him and not me, and how guilty I feel some times about that” he says.

But less and less, he thinks, the race itself is a driver of those feelings. “It’s evolved from pure grief to a celebration.”

Schuyler Velasco is a Northeastern Global News Magazine senior writer. Email her at Follow her on X/Twitter @Schuyler_V.