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'Always Smiling': Hundreds Turn Out To Honor Teen Who Drowned In Hudson River

Watervliet High School student Matthew Billetts, age 16, died after suffering a medical emergency at Hudson Shores Park Monday, June 13.
Watervliet High School student Matthew Billetts, age 16, died after suffering a medical emergency at Hudson Shores Park Monday, June 13. Photo Credit: Parker Bros. Memorial Funeral Home/USSC

Matthew Billetts died doing what he loved most: fishing.

The Albany-area high school student died Monday, June 13, at the age of 16 after falling into the Hudson River at Hudson Shores Park, according to Watervliet Police.

Billetts, a Watervliet High School junior who had a rare form of epilepsy called sunflower syndrome, suffered a seizure and lost consciousness before falling into the water and drowning, his family told the Albany Times Union.

A dive team located the boy a short time later and tried resuscitating him, but he was later pronounced dead at a hospital, police said.

News of his death spread quickly in the small city, with classmates, teachers, and even a school board member offering up condolences on social media.

“You could always see him smiling, and riding his bike,” said Watervliet Board of Education member Tim Delisle. “He loved freeze pops at Brotherhood Park and had a great laugh. Our prayers are with everyone that knew Matt."

“Matt was one of the kindest, most joyful, funny students I’ve ever had,” said Louisa Vaughan. “His death is a tremendous loss to the Watervliet Junior Senior High School community.”

Born in Albany, “Matt Matt,” as he was known to family and friends, grew up and went to school in Watervliet, according to his obituary.

The teen was looking forward to his senior year and planned on entering the automotive program at the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), his memorial said.

He was also excited about starting a summer job at the Watervliet Housing Authority.

“Matt had a heart of gold and would assist anyone who needed his help, whether it was a neighbor, whose car was stuck in the snow, providing the right tool for a project or just a smile to brighten a person’s day,” reads his obituary.

“Most of all, he loved fishing more than anything else.”

On the evening of his death, hundreds of mourners gathered at the high school’s football field for a candlelight vigil.

Lining the field were white lunch bags arranged to spell his name, each one showcasing a drawing that a student had made in the boy’s honor.

“Always smiling, forever a Cannoneer,” read one bag with a yellow smiley face on it.

“Your smile will always be remembered,” read another. “You will always be prom king in my eyes.”

“Made our school a better place,” read another.

A viewing for Billetts is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday, June 18, at Parker Bros. Memorial Funeral Home in Watervliet, his obituary said. Funeral services will immediately follow.

In lieu of flowers, Billetts’ family asked that donations be made to the Matthew Billetts Scholarship Fund at Pioneer Savings Bank. 

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