Below the Surface
As the 10th anniversary of September 11 approaches, we go to the 'deep places' with a few members of the Wagner community. Hearing their personal stories, we feel the 'percussive waves' still emanating from the boulder of September 11.
By Laura Barlament
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Courtney Fry was
waking up in Harborview Hall. In her first semester of college, she was getting ready to go to her 9:40 a.m. history class, part of her first-year learning community (LC), “Cities and Civilization,” taught by history professor Alison Smith and English professor Anne Schotter.
Courtney felt so lucky to have been placed into this LC, which focused on great cities of history as well as contemporary New York City. She had come to Wagner all the way from Orange County, California, with big dreams about life in the Big Apple. Though far away from her home, Courtney had family nearby: her father's brother, Peter Fry, lived with his wife and children in Wilton, Connecticut. Courtney had just spent Labor Day weekend with them, and she planned to see her uncle again soon. One of her best friends from home was visiting, and Courtney planned to take her to visit Peter's office, located in one of New York City's must-see tourist sites: the World Trade Center.
Courtney was in the shower when she heard a commotion in the hallways. Someone was yelling, “A plane hit the tower!” Courtney's first thought was of Towers residence hall on the Wagner campus, but then she started watching television. She sat in her room, riveted to the unfolding events — until she realized it was time to go to class. She jumped up and ran to Main Hall in flip flops and with wet hair, afraid she'd be in trouble for being late.
Classmate Jake Browne '05 M'08 remembers having a similar reaction that morning; he now laughs at the incongruity of the situation: “I went into a friend's room [with a Manhattan view], saw the second plane hit the second tower — and then, like very good freshmen, we still went to our 9:40 class.”
So began the day that redirected Courtney's life, reshaped Professor Smith's and Schotter's approach to teaching history and literature, and did so much more to change our world.
“The 9/11 attacks were a boulder thrown in the water, creating ripples that moved out wider and wider,” writes the Rev. Dr. Stephen Paul Bouman H'08 in Grace All Around Us, his 2006 book of memories and reflections on September 11. At that time, he was bishop of the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and a Wagner trustee.
“Everything changes; nothing changes — as with all tragedies,” Bouman continues. “But there is more going on than meets the eye. … Percussive waves beneath the surface ripple, still emanate from the boulder in the water and connect wider and deeper than what is visible. The analogy is imperfect[,] but come with me to the deep.”
As the 10th anniversary of September 11 approaches, let's go to those deep places with a few members of the Wagner community. Hearing their personal stories, we feel the “percussive waves” still emanating from the boulder of September 11.
For Courtney Fry and her family, September 11 meant, first of all, loss of a beloved uncle, husband, father, son, and brother.
At Wagner College, classes were canceled for the remainder of the week, and the administration encouraged all students to go home if possible. Courtney, however, remained on campus. She couldn't stay away from Manhattan. It was helpful, she recalls, to share in the city's collective pain, as she and her friend walked around and looked at the pictures of the missing. “So although I'm in no way a real New Yorker, at that time I felt like a New Yorker,” she says. “Being a part of that community was a very emotional and poignant thing.”
While dealing with her own grief and loss, she also began an intellectual journey. And the two combined to give her a new direction in life.
“I grew up very sheltered in Orange County. September 11 opened my eyes,” she says. “This sounds a little trite, but I was 18 years old, and I was thinking, 'How could something like this happen in America?'” She attended the special seminars Wagner offered for students hungry to learn more about historical and cultural factors that had led to the attacks. She plunged into her studies and explorations of New York City with her learning community, which she calls “one of the coolest things I've done in my entire life.” She became a leader in the history and political science clubs, organizing a trip to Washington, D.C.
Finally, although she loved Wagner College, she decided she had to be in Washington. “I got the overwhelming sense to want to make a positive change in the world, so something like this wouldn't happen again, as naïve as that sounds,” she says. She transferred to American University. After graduation in 2005, she began working in politics, first doing campaign fieldwork for the organization Emily's List. In 2007, she joined the staff of Congressman Steny Hoyer, currently House Democratic Whip.
“The recent news of [the death of Osama] Bin Laden reminded me of why I'm here,” she says. “September 11 affected everyone, but for me it was really life-changing.”
“Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers!” rhapsodizes Walt Whitman in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” an ode to New York and New Yorkers, present and future. It just so happened that this poem was the reading assigned for the day that Courtney's learning community returned to class after September 11. Wall Street had just reopened, with the workers taking ferries from Brooklyn and New Jersey because the subways and trains to Lower Manhattan were shut down.
“It's been one of those few times as a faculty member that I remember thinking I was going to cry while I was teaching something, and having to get it under control,” recalls Alison Smith, history professor for the LC.
In the light of what had just happened in New York City, Smith and Schotter recall, every history lesson, every reading rang with fresh resonance.
“Our study of New York became painfully relevant as the city, which before had seemed invulnerable and even cruel, became a wounded creature, whose pulse was taken daily,” they write in a proposal for a conference about 9/11 and the college curriculum.
“I had the feeling for the rest of that semester that I was sort of improvising,” says Smith. She captioned her midterm exam with the saying, “May you live in interesting times.” “We had such an intense feeling that we were living through such a historical, terribly important moment, and that in fact it was not a good idea to be living through interesting times,” she says.
Ten years later, Smith and Schotter have transformed their approach to this learning community. Instead of using great cities of Western civilization as their lens for studying medieval and early modern history and literature, they look at cross-cultural connections around the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic. They give increased attention to the great religious traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and especially Islam. Global immigration has risen from a minor to the major theme of the course. It's all part of giving students a better view of the historical and cultural evolution that has led to our post-9/11 world.
“We are having to forge new and quite 'cutting-edge' ideas about what and how to teach the material to American undergrads,” says Smith. “There are few if any models to fall back on.”
One great theme from the deep well of September 11, often repeated in the Wagner community, is an increased level of civic commitment, and a greater love for New York City.
Professor Smith's children had just started attending school on Manhattan's Upper East Side in the fall of 2001. After September 11, she and her husband discussed whether they should be sending their children to school in Manhattan, whether they should even be living in this city. “But it got to a point where I just became fiercely loyal to the city,” Smith says.
Professor Schotter agrees. “There was a tremendous sense of tenderness toward New York, that it was vulnerable for the first time in a while.” Adds Smith, “We needed to protect it and resurrect it somehow.”
President Guarasci, a native New Yorker, was Wagner's provost in the fall of 2001. One of his most vivid memories from that time was going door to door in Harborview to
check on students in the days following September 11. He wanted to let them know that the College encouraged them to go home to be with family, and that they should bring any friends with them who were not able to get home.
He expected to find students overcome with fear and anxiety, and eager to leave the city. Instead, in room after room, the students wanted to know how they could get to Ground Zero, how they could give blood — how they could help. “I was so pleasantly stunned by the remarkable big hearts and civic commitment of our students,” he says.
Seeing how New Yorkers came together in a new way in the aftermath of September 11 had a profound effect on him, Guarasci says, causing him to rethink his own relationship to patriotism and to citizenship.
“I mean patriotism not in the sense that Americans are better, but appreciating the special privileges we fought to gain, and that — in our best moments — uplift humanity and human dignity. It's something to cherish — that became more embedded in my heart after 9/11.”
It wasn't easy to awaken John Orecchia '04 to reality on September 11 — literally. As a “born and bred New Yorker” from Bath Beach, Brooklyn, he was blasé when his roommate, Drew Babitts '03, who's from suburban Boston, told him the city had been attacked by terrorists. “Drew, you are in NYC now, there is some sort of terrorist attack every other month,” he remembers responding.
John had spent the previous evening at a local bar, drowning his frustration in beer and karaoke after an argument with one of his fraternity brothers. “The argument we were having was very important to me at the time,” John says. “Basically, he wanted to be inactive in our fraternity, Kappa Sigma Alpha, and I was all about being involved.”
Finally, Drew turned up the television volume and yelled, “Look!” Outside, John and Drew saw the smoke billowing across the water. “At that point, it just came to me how minuscule my stupid argument was,” says John.
Later, he learned that his parents' neighbor, a firefighter, was missing. It turned out that he was one of the 343 firefighters who died that day. “All of it made me realize how at the time what I thought was so important to me really wasn't important at all,” says John. “It put a lot of things in my life in their proper priority.”
John noticed that this, the worst of times, brought out the best in his community. “As terrible as those attacks were, it was equally amazing to see a city severed by this incident come together,” he says. “All I wanted was to be a part of that coming together.” He switched his major from theater to sociology. He joined the New York Police Department immediately after graduation, in June 2004. After six years as a Manhattan street officer, he is now a sergeant in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
“If it wasn't for 9/11, I don't think I would have the life I have now, nor be the person I am now,” John adds.
Drew's goals changed as well. A business major, he wanted to go into sports marketing; he even had an internship with NASCAR's Manhattan offices that semester. As he watched the destruction unfold in Lower Manhattan, he realized that just the day before, at the time the planes hit the buildings, he had been walking just a few blocks away.
“The whole thing changed me,” Drew says. “It gave me a better perspective on life. That things can change in a moment's notice. That my internship was just a small piece in the bigger picture of the world.” His interest in sports marketing waned. He started to take education courses along with his business track. Today, he works in fundraising for Wagner College. “I raise money for education at Wagner because I believe in what I do,” he says. “I feel that education is the way to prevent events like 9/11 from continuing to happen. Through education comes a better understanding of other people and other cultures. Hopefully it will bring an end to the hatred that led to 9/11.”
The sudden and traumatic loss of life on September 11 left permanent wounds in the hearts of those who lost their loved ones. Yet it also left a legacy of compassion and generosity that shows no signs of abating.
One of the biggest examples is the annual Tunnel to Towers run, inspired by Staten Island firefighter Stephen Siller. Although his shift had ended, Siller returned to duty when he heard of the attack on the World Trade Center, running through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to reach Ground Zero. He has become an icon of the firefighters who died while attempting to rescue others.
The annual run in his memory follows his route through the tunnel to Ground Zero. Around 25,000 people participate each year, including a busload from Wagner College. Firefighters line the route, holding banners with the names and pictures of those who were lost on 9/11. Because of the special spirit of the event, “[it] beats every race you can do,” says Christine Pagano '04 M'09, who was the top female finisher in 2009. The event has raised millions of dollars for the Stephen Siller Children's Foundation, which benefits orphaned and neglected children.
Stephen Siller's large and loving family includes nephew and godson Dan Scullin '07, a Wagner theater graduate who was a senior at Staten Island's Curtis High School on September 11.
Dan still struggles with hurt, anger, and disbelief at his uncle's death. But the race gives him hope. “If you're going to have to lose somebody, it's good that it turns into something that gives back to the community,” he says. “It almost makes you feel like there's a purpose to it. It wasn't just death for death's sake. Something good has come from it.”
Dan says that September 11 helped to inspire him to go for his dream career of acting in musical theater. He has been working steadily in theater since graduation; this summer, he will earn his membership in Actors' Equity.
Lisa De Rienzo '87, twin sister of Michael De Rienzo '87, a Cantor Fitzgerald employee who perished in the North Tower, says that this year's 10th annual golf outing to raise
money for her brother's charitable fund will be the last. But the thousands of dollars that she and Michael's friends have raised will keep on giving. At Wagner, they created a $100,000 endowed scholarship that has already helped one student, Alexander Smith '11, through four years of a Wagner education. As a permanent fund, it will continue to provide scholarships for Wagner students in perpetuity. The charitable foundation has provided scholarships to students at St. Joseph by-the-Sea High School as well.
Despite being twins, Michael and Lisa were two quite different personalities. Lisa, a police officer who left Wagner College after her junior year to join the NYPD, was always outgoing and loud. Michael tended to be more quiet and bookish, majoring in business and going into the financial services field. Whereas Lisa thrived in team sports, earning a Wagner softball scholarship, Michael enjoyed running — he even ran the New York City Marathon in 1996 — and golf. Michael always tried to interest Lisa in golf, but she says she found it boring and resisted him “tooth and nail” on that topic.
Ironically, after Michael's death, golf has become an important part of Lisa's life, a key way of remembering and celebrating Michael's life. When she and friends like Steve Mehler '87 were thinking about how to establish a lasting memorial for Michael, Lisa observed that golf tournaments were a good way to raise a lot of money with relatively little effort. So, despite her distaste for golf, she started attending golf outings and learning how they worked.
Not only did she become an expert in golf fundraisers, but she also fell in love with the game. Since then, she commemorates September 11 on the golf course. For her, it provides a place of peace and respite, away from the crowds and the public memorials. As a police officer on duty on September 11, she experienced the trauma of seeing the horror first-hand — the fire, the smoke, the falling bodies, the building collapses. “[The golf course is] the safest place to be, sanity-wise,” she says.
The memorial golf outings have provided a good outlet for dealing with her brother's death, Lisa says, and the joy of giving has given her much hope. But now, she has another Michael in her life. In another extraordinary twist of fate, a year ago, Lisa and her partner, Kerri, had twin boys. Their names are Cooper and Michael.
The ripples of September 11 also continue to manifest themselves in stories like that of Francie Kontominas '07 and Christopher Kline '02 M'04.
On September 11, Francie was a junior at Parsippany Hills High School, about 30 miles west of Manhattan, and Christopher was a senior business major at Wagner College. Francie first visited the College in fall 2002, a few months after Christopher's graduation. She noted the unique skyline view from campus — and the fact that “sadly, something was missing,” she says. “It brought back feelings of sorrow and anger.”
Fast forward to September 2009, and that “something missing” again becomes a force capable of bringing people together for good. Christopher is a financial controller for
Morgan Stanley; Francie works as an operating room nurse at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. One of Francie's Alpha Delta Pi sorority sisters, Dominique Zirino '07, asks if she would be interested in running with her in the first annual World Trade Center Run to Remember on Governor's Island. Dominique and her friends were participating in memory of Joseph A. Mascali, a Staten Island firefighter who died in the line of duty on September 11.
Francie thought it was a great idea. At the race, she met Joseph's son, Chris Mascali — and also Chris's roommate, Christopher Kline. Francie and Christopher hit it off immediately. They started dating, and late last year they became engaged to be married. The wedding is planned for June 16, 2012.
“We will continue to participate in the WTC Run to Remember annually,” Francie says. “This year it falls on September 4. We'll run in loving memory of our friend Chris's father, Joseph A. Mascali, and honor the lives of those lost on September 11, 2001.”
'Be Part of That Coming Together': Opportunities to commemorate September 11
Life After 9/11: Three alumni stories of loss and life after September 11