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Forest Grove High senior Cody Fellows ambition was to be a professional rodeo cowboy

by: COURTESY PHOTO - A day rarely passed when Cody Fellows, 18, did not ride his Paint horse, Iggy, on his familys sprawling ranch on Fern Hill Road in rural Forest Grove.Genuine. Hard-working. Kind. Big-hearted. Goofy. Those are all words or phrases Cody Fellows’ family and friends used to describe the young man they worked with, played with, fought for and loved.

And despite his youth — and his penchant for drinking Mountain Dew — the 18-year-old was an old soul.

“He was always a little man ... mature beyond his years,” his mother, Gerri Fellows, said Monday of her only son, who died of cardiomyopathy March 4 at Tuality Community Hospital in Hillsboro.

The teenager had been watching television in the living room of his rural Forest Grove home when his heart stopped. “I found him unconscious,” said Gerri, shaking as she spoke about Cody just six days after he passed away.

It was rare that Cody — a tall, slender and muscular Forest Grove High School senior at 6-foot-2 — slowed down long enough to recline on a couch, according to his mom. “He was an outdoors kid, through and through,” she said.

Whether riding his Paint horse, Iggy, on the family’s ranch off Fern Hill Road, working construction with his pals on the FGHS Viking House crew, showing pigs at the Washington County Fair as part of his school’s FFA chapter or wrestling steers as a competitor in the Oregon High School Rodeo Association, Cody hardly ever sat still.

Last Tuesday night was an exception. “We’ve basically known all his life that this could happen,” noted Gerri. When Cody was a baby, doctors told Gerri and her husband, Dennis, that the left ventricle in their son’s heart didn’t pump correctly.

He was asymptomatic, however, until last October, when an all-terrain vehicle he was riding in eastern Oregon turned over on him and he wound up in a hospital trauma unit for five days. “His transverse process (part of the lumbar vertebrae) was broken, and he had renal damage in one kidney,” Gerri said. “That’s when we saw [an arrhythmia] on the monitor.”

Once he was sprung from the hospital, however, Cody remained firm in his opposition to a cardiac pacemaker — something physicians first suggested when he was a young teen. The device could have kept his heart from giving out but also would have limited his activities. (See sidebar.)

“He knew the consequences,” said his mom, “but I don’t think the doctors were too happy with us.”

Sisters Teresa Bell and Lisa Moore, whose kids were childhood playmates of Cody’s, agreed that their friend lived life on his own terms. “He wanted to live a normal life,” said Bell, a Forest Grove resident whose son Bailey often rode quads with Cody.

Dennis Fellows, a former rodeo pro, said his son was following in his footsteps as he dreamed of joining the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. He added that Cody, whom Bell and Moore described as “Dennis’ right-hand — and sometimes left-hand — man,” could be ornery, but he also was generous to a fault.

“He would give you the shirt off his back,” Dennis said, his voice breaking.

Cody dabbled in a long list of activities during his younger years at Dilley Elementary, Tom McCall Upper Elementary and Neil Armstrong Middle School. He played hockey with the Junior Winter Hawks in Portland, and the Fellowses played host in 2004 to Armenian player Jack Avetissian, who was gunning for a spot on the Winter Hawks professional team.

“Jack was Cody’s brother for a couple years,” said Bell.

Cody was accident-prone, owing mostly to his devil-may-care attitude. The first time he went snowboarding, he fell and broke his right arm. He broke the left one in a fall from a ladder when he and his dad were putting a new gutter up on the family’s wood shed during his freshman year at FGHS.

A charmer who sometimes got his teachers to ignore tardy slips at school, Cody once drove his tractor to the high school after he missed the morning bus, then stuck a parking sticker on it to make his friends laugh.

He didn’t have a particular steady girlfriend, but “he had lots of crushes,” said his mother.

After graduation in June, Cody planned to work over the summer at Gales Creek Farms and then head to Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, where he’d enroll in the diesel mechanics program and participate in college-level rodeo.

In his free time, he practiced bulldogging on his family’s 28-acre ranch, hooking a dummy “steer” up to a tractor and tackling it while his dad drove it around. “He said to me, ‘I think I put 1,500 hours in on that thing,’” Gerri Fellows said.

Two weeks before he died, Cody competed in a rodeo in Eugene. “You would never catch that kid without a pair of cowboy boots and Wranglers on,” said Bell. by: COURTESY PHOTO - One morning last fall when Cody Fellows missed the bus to Forest Grove High School, he hopped on his tractor and drove it to campus, where friends chuckled after he stuck a parking pass on it.

Dennis Fellows, who said he “used to bulldog for a living,” erected a barn on his property so his son could practice. “I lost that battle the beginning of last year,” he joked about his vain attempts to dissuade Cody from the rodeo life.

Some of Cody’s ashes will be spread in Ione and Heppner, two eastern Oregon towns to which he and his parents have lifelong ties because of rodeo. Years ago, Dennis Fellows competed with Heppner resident Steve Currin. Cody Fellows and Currin’s son Colby competed in the same circles, one generation hence.

“It’s kind of like our boys were carrying on the tradition,” said Gerri Fellows, wiping away a tear. “Rodeo’s a tight-knit community.”

Cody was also “absolutely committed” to FFA, his father said, holding officer positions at Forest Grove High and attending every scheduled activity, whether he was part of it or not, to support his pals.

When Dennis threatened to keep him home from FFA last fall unless he brought his grades up, Cody came home with a report card showing all As and a couple Bs.

“I asked him whose report card he stole,” his dad quipped.

Cody’s friends will remember his quick wit, his easygoing ways and his stalwart presence in their lives. They’ll also recall his pet slogan, “You Can’t Fix Stupid.”

Most of all, Cody James Fellows has left behind an example of a generous human spirit. “He had a heart of gold,” said his dad.

Cardiomyopathy: ‘heart muscle disease’

Cody Fellows was known for his big heart, yet paradoxically, he had a compromised heart since his birth in Hillsboro on Nov. 27, 1995.

“We knew he had cardiomyopathy since he was a baby,” said his mother, Gerri Fellows. “But he never had symptoms. He never felt that ‘funky chicken’ kind of irregular heart beat.”

The non-specific condition, known to cause heart failure, took the 18-year-old Forest Grove High School student’s life last Tuesday, March 4.

Characterized by deterioration of the function of the myocardium (heart muscle), cardiomyopathy can arise at any age, according to the American Heart Association’s website. “The heart muscle becomes enlarged, thick or rigid.

“As cardiomyopathy worsens, the heart becomes weaker. It’s less able to pump blood through the body and maintain a normal electrical rhythm. This can lead to heart failure or irregular heartbeats.”

About 500,000 Americans have cardiomyopathy and many don’t realize it, according to the Texas Heart Institute. Unlike other heart ailments, it frequently affects younger people.

Treatments for cardiomyopathy include medications and implanted devices to correct arrhythmias, notes the AHA website. Cody, an avid outdoorsman, eschewed the idea of a pacemaker, wanting to live his life to the fullest.

His parents supported his decision not to have a defibrillator.

“The doctors didn’t want him to ride horses or all-terrain vehicles or weld — all things he loved to do,” said Gerri Fellows. Fighting back tears, his father was plain about his response to Cody’s decision.

“He went on his own terms,” said Dennis Fellows. “You kind of had to respect that.”

— Nancy Townsley

Friends mourn student who died in his sleep Tuesday

Less than 24 hours after Forest Grove High School senior Cody Fellows passed away unexpectedly Tuesday night, shocked friends and classmates gathered at Sonrise Church in town Wednesday evening to remember him.

Fellows, who apparently died in his sleep, was 18.

About 120 mourners came to the church on 19th Avenue just before 7 p.m. and made their way to the service in the children's ministry room. Among those in attendance were Tom Robinson and Susan Dieter-Robinson, parents of Abigail Robinson and Anna Dieter-Eckerdt, the two sisters who died in October after a car ran over them while they were playing in a pile of leaves on Main Street. The Robinsons are members at Sonrise.

"Tonight we are allowing time to grieve together," Sonrise Pastor Rudy Tinoco told the crowd. "Healing begins with being together."

There was no immediate word about the cause of Fellows' death. It is not known whether an autopsy will be performed.

Chris Higginbotham, Fellows' teacher and leader of Forest Grove High's Viking House crew, a student construction group that hand-builds a house each year, said it was hard to slow Fellows down.

"He was a hard dog to keep under the porch," Higginbotham said. "He had a great heart and I feel fortunate to have known him."

Fellows was "daring," noted Kathy Daugherty, who knew him when he was in fifth-grade at Tom McCall Upper Elementary School. "He persevered and persevered through life and that is an awesome character trait."

A number of those at the vigil recalled Fellows' sense of humor. One told a story about the day he missed the bus and decided to drive his tractor to school. He stuck a parking sticker on it, making all his friends and the school security officer laugh.

"He didn't care about the outcome, no matter how much trouble he got in," said Tyler Baxter, who went to school with Fellows for two years.

Word of Fellows' passing spread quickly in the halls at FGHS Wednesday, and classmates took to social media to express their feelings about their friend.

"He was a the hardest worker and the most entertaining guy on the crew," student Charlotte Sidman wrote on Facebook. "Today's been rough."

Teri Scott, an instructional assistant for the district, wrote that Fellows would be greatly missed.

"I was looking forward to watching you walk across the stage at graduation," wrote Scott.

Sierra Rinier, who had known Fellows since they were in eighth-grade, noted it was "hard to believe" he was gone.

"You never failed to make me laugh and you had a great big heart," she wrote.

In addition to Viking House crew, Fellows also was active in the Forest Grove FFA chapter.

Principal Karen Robinson posted a letter to families on the high school's website Wednesday, saying officials "have been implementing a plan for supporting students and staff who need it" in the wake of the teenager's death.

"We know that you will join us in our support and sympathy for those impacted by this sad event," the message read, adding that "school staff and district counselors have been and will continue to be available to students who need special attention and support."

-- Nancy Townsley and Kathleen Rohde

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