If only his mother could see him now.

On Monday, as Gabe Brady graduates from Washington Academy in East Machias and sets his sights on the University of Maine, he’ll bask in the glow of a $2,500 scholarship.

It’s not for academic achievement, although he’s performed well in the classroom.

Nor is for athletic prowess or musical mastery or any of the other talents that typically get kids recognized this time of year.

It’s for character.

“I was forced to grow up much earlier than I should have,” Gabe, 18, said during an interview on Friday in his school’s guidance office. “And I think that after seeing all that I did, I want to help people who are in my shoes. Help kids who have been through domestic violence.”

Gabe is one of four students across Maine who depart high school this spring under the spotlight of Mainely Character. Since 2000, the scholarship organization has awarded $107,000, and counting, to kids who stick out for their courage, integrity, personal responsibility and concern for others.

None is more deserving than Gabe Brady.

He was but 9 years old when, on the night of Feb. 23, 2008, he and his two younger siblings watched their mother’s deranged boyfriend shoot and kill her in cold blood.

Her name was Katie Cabana, although she’s now remembered with the surname Wilder, her mother’s maiden name.

Katie was 29 and a loving mother to Gabe and his younger half-siblings, Autumn and Ethan. But she suffered from bipolar disorder, along with a string of violent relationships to which the kids were all too often the only eyewitnesses.

Gabe became the family caretaker, the protector, the man of the house – if such a thing can be said of a boy at the age of 6 or 7.

But on that awful night nine years ago, when an enraged Richard Widdecombe Jr. showed up at the family’s home in rural Marshfield with a rifle, there was nothing anyone could do.

First Widdecombe shot Katie, who collapsed in the hallway trying to get to her children. Another shot hit 6-year-old Autumn in the foot.

Widdecombe next headed outside, where he shot and killed Aaron Settipani, 41, a family friend who had come to help pull Katie’s stuck vehicle out of a snowbank.

“I ended up grabbing a towel and wrapping Autumn’s foot up,” Gabe recalled with crystal clarity. “There was a lot of blood.”

Before Katie and Settipani died, both had called 911. Gabe called his grandmother, Ray Ann Wilder, long his most trusted first responder.

But Marshfield is close to nowhere. For what seemed like an eternity, there was only darkness, silence and, for two young children and their big brother, sheer terror.

Gabe carried Autumn to his bedroom, with Ethan close behind.

“I tried to get them both under the covers to hide them because I wasn’t sure if (Widdecombe) was going to come back,” Gabe said. “That was probably the worst part of the night – not knowing if we were going to die or not. Not knowing if he was going to come back into the house with the gun.”

Police finally arrived and the rest is that all-too-familiar blur of endless questions, forensic reconstruction and unfathomable grief.

“It was heartbreaking,” said Gabe, recalling how his grandmother and two aunts rushed to the hospital only to learn it was too late – Katie was gone. “But at the same time, I don’t remember being able to cry.”

Police arrested Widdecombe that night at his home in Machias. He eventually pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and now, at age 35, is serving a life sentence at the Maine State Prison.

The three children went to live with their grandmother in nearby Dennysville. That is until Autumn’s and Ethan’s father obtained custody over them after a protracted legal battle and, just like that, they too vanished.

“I haven’t seen them since,” Gabe said, the loss plainly visible in his eyes. “I grew up with them and seeing all this domestic abuse, all this terror, all of my life, they were kind of … I loved them so much.”

He easily could have drowned in his own anger. Like so many men whose hellacious childhoods devolve into violent and abusive adulthoods, he could have gone on to subject others to the same nightmares once inflicted on him.

Not a chance.

Gabe was no older than 10 when, with the help of his grandmother, he began donating his birthday money and other gifts to the Next Step Domestic Violence Project, which covers Hancock and Washington counties.

Through the project, he helped found “Katie’s Quest,” a fund named after his mother that aims specifically to help other kids still trapped in the maelstrom of domestic violence.

More than once throughout his four years of high school, Gabe also has reached out quietly to fellow students whose home lives leave a lot to be desired.

His unyielding message: Domestic violence is the fault of the abuser. Period.

“There’s no excuse,” he said. “No excuse.”

He still grapples at times with depression. And when the hunters fire their guns in the woods around his grandmother’s home, he struggles to keep the flashbacks at bay.

Still, there’s a reason Gabe is the youngest-ever recipient of the Maine Department of Public Safety Bravery Award. Just as there’s a reason he’ll gravitate toward either nursing or psychology when, bolstered by his scholarship, he heads for the University of Maine this fall.

“Those are jobs where you can basically make other people’s lives better,” he explained.

Little wonder that when Mainely Character’s board sat down this spring to review the 200 or so scholarship applications from the Class of 2017, Gabe’s stood out immediately.

As did three others:

Noa Sreden Courtesy photo by Soggydogdesigns

Noa Sreden arrived at Morse High School in Bath four years ago cloaked in self-consciousness due to a speech deficit.

She leaves a confident young woman who founded Shipbuilders Committed, a student organization that strives to build a culture of success for all. She also started YEL!, which matches elementary-age children with high school mentors.

Katie Waeldner Courtesy photo

Katie Waeldner of Yarmouth is all about fighting hunger.

In addition to expanding the Nutrition Closet for her fellow high schoolers in need of weekend sustenance, she helped Yarmouth Community Services launch Lunch Crunch, a weekend and summer program for younger children without enough to eat.

Caitlyn McNulty Courtesy photo

Caitlyn McNulty refused to look the other way when she saw a friend and classmate at Scarborough High School verbally harassed and then physically bullied because she was gay.

Instead, McNulty spent more than a year gaining school approval for the Gender Sexuality Alliance, which provides a refuge for gay students and works to raise awareness around LGBT issues.

Self-motivated kids every one. As Anne Frank once wrote in her diary when she was but a teenager, “The final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”

“You can be a good student. You can get a good job,” said Curtis Mildner, president of Mainely Character’s board. “But these kids are making their community better.”

And, in Gabe Brady’s case, safer.

Among those cheering him on when he ascends the stage on Monday will be Ray Ann Wilder, his grandmother.

In an interview Saturday, she called her grandson “an old soul.”

And yes, she admitted, she’s bracing herself for what will be the most bittersweet of days.

But she’ll see her deceased daughter in Gabe’s face, especially those eyebrows. And she’ll know that out of all that madness almost a decade ago, something truly good has blossomed.

“I’m so proud of him,” Wilder said, “He’s going to be a good man.”

A man of character.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]