Hamilton middle schooler born with dwarfism dies: ‘His smile could change your mood.’

His mother says Austin Degler, 14, showed no signs of illness before he died in his sleep.

HAMILTON — Austin Degler packed a lot of punch in his 4-foot-1 body.

Born with achondroplasia dwarfism, Austin didn’t let his disability define him, according to his mother, Michelle Joseph.

“He always embraced being unique,” she said. “Sure people stared, but he realized he couldn’t change their reaction, but he could control how he reacted to them. He never gave people the power to ruin his day. He was quite a character. He loved life.”

Austin, 14, a seventh-grader at Wilson Middle School in Hamilton, died Dec. 30 from meningitis, his mother said.

He attended a Cincinnati Cyclones hockey game on Dec. 28, never complained about feeling ill and died in his sleep, his mother said. When she went into his bedroom to wake him up, he wasn’t breathing.

“Total shock,” she said when asked her reaction. “Disbelief.”

Rates of meningococcal disease have declined in the United States since the 1990s and remain low today. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2021, there were about 210 total cases of meningococcal disease reported in the U.S.

Among adolescents and young adults, those 16 through 23 years old have the highest rates of meningococcal disease, according to the CDC.

Meningitis is the inflammation of the tissues surrounding the brain and spinal cord and is usually caused by infection, according to the World Health Organization.

Bacterial meningitis is the most common dangerous type of meningitis and can be fatal within 24 hours, according to the WHO.

While Joseph, 36, said she will become an advocate for meningitis educational programs, she prefers to remember how her son lived instead of how he died.

She described Austin as a charismatic, resilient, amazing storyteller, who knew how to “lighten up a room. His smile could change your mood.”

He played trumpet in the school band and loved fishing, rooting for the Cincinnati Bengals, and playing baseball as a member of the Joe Nuxhall Miracle League from 2016-2019.

Tyler Bradshaw, executive director of the Nuxhall Foundation, said watching Austin on the diamond was another example of why the facility for people with special needs was built.

“He had such joy, fulfillment,” Bradshaw said. “He had an infectious smile that was hard not to see.”

Bradshaw called Austin “a great young man” who would have made the late Joe Nuxhall proud.

Jesse Weisbrod, principal at Wilson, said Austin was “a friend to all” at the school and he will be “deeply missed” by all the students and staff.

Austin is survived by his parents, Michelle Joseph and Mitchell Degler; his siblings, Jesse “Peyton” Degler, Harley Degler and Raven Treadway; and his grandparents, Elinor (Dale) Gabbard and Sarah Darlas.

He was preceded in death by his grandparents, Peter and Donna Degler, Jane Ramey and Dennis Joseph.

Visitation will be from 5-7 p.m. Wednesday at Brown Dawson Flick Funeral Home, 1350 Millville Ave., Hamilton. Funeral service will follow at 7 p.m. at the funeral home with Pastor Patrick Davis officiating. Burial will be held at 1 p.m. Thursday at Hickory Flat Cemetery.

Memorial contributions can be made to the funeral home to help the family with the funeral expenses at (513) 895-5412 or donations may be submitted at http://mealtrain.com/vkr72y.

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