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Memorial service remembers slain Fargo dentist

A photograph of Fargo periodontist Philip Gattuso sits surrounded by floral arrangements during a memorial service Saturday at Bethel Evangelical Free Church in Fargo. Dave Wallis / The Forum

In the weeks leading up to his death, Philip Gattuso spoke of wanting to reunite with his late wife, Valerie.

Colleagues, friends and neighbors of the murdered Fargo dentist took comfort Saturday knowing Gattuso is with her in heaven.

About 200 gathered for a memorial service at Fargo's Bethel Evangelical Free Church, where Gattuso was a member and arrived early on Sunday mornings to listen to the musicians warm up.

The 49-year-old Fargo periodontist was found beaten to death with a hammer Oct. 26 in his south Fargo condominium after he didn't pick up his daughter from day care.

The Rev. Paul Bond said he had lunch with Gattuso on Oct. 1, and Gattuso shared with him the pain of losing Valerie, who died in March after living on an artificial heart for 18 months.

"He said, 'I want to see Valerie really, really, really bad,' " Bond said. "Little did we know that three weeks later, that would be fulfilled."

Colleagues and friends spoke of Gattuso's devotion for his 3-year-old daughter, Kennedy, his Southern drawl and his upbeat nature, even as he grieved for Valerie. Photos of a smiling Gattuso were displayed at the front of the church and in the narthex.

"I'm certainly better having known him," said Gattuso's friend and colleague Steven George. "I think everyone he touched is better having known him, his patients, his staff, his neighbors, his colleagues."

Gattuso's family was unable to attend the service. A funeral was held Wednesday in his home state of Louisiana.

The Rev. Matthew St. John read a letter from Gattuso's son Joseph, who said his father always had the right words to say, including a recent phone conversation when Joseph was nervous about a business trip.

"He calmed down my nerves like only he could do best and said that I was going to do great," Joseph wrote in the letter. "His last words to me were that he had never been more proud of his son."

Gattuso also is survived by another son, Philip Jr.

Bond described Gattuso as a renaissance man: an avid photographer, poet and writer who loved Dixieland jazz, cooking and grilling.

During their lunch conversation just weeks before his death, Gattuso confided in Bond that he was planning to launch a new career and start an art franchise in downtown Fargo.

Many spoke of Gattuso's strong Christian faith and how he attended a men's fraternity at the church at 6:30 a.m. each Friday.

Gattuso also could be found Sunday mornings at Bethel's cafe, with one eye on his Bible and the other on his daughter.

The circumstances that brought people to Saturday's memorial service are painful, St. John said.

"Philip was brutally murdered," St. John said. "We cannot get our brains around the brutality and the motive."

Pastors urged people to take comfort that Gattuso is in heaven with Valerie.

"Though for us we grieve and for us we hurt, we need to understand that Philip is free like he's never known freedom before," St. John said.

The Rev. Paul Bond read this poem by Philip Gattuso during his memorial service. It was found on a table in his home after his death.

It's unknown when Gattuso wrote it, but it's believed to have been recent because of its location in his home.

"A thought"

I am only one, but I am still someone.

I may not know everything, but I still know something.

Just because I do not know everything does not give me the right to do nothing.

Start each day with a fresh beginning as if the whole world were new.

Let us pray not for lighter burdens, but for stronger backs.

Never be afraid to do what is right, even if everyone around you is doing wrong.