By Laura Barlament
When Katherine Klimacek O’Connor Beiter ’62 moved into a new senior housing complex in Avon, New York, a few years ago, her yard was a plain concrete slab. Now, it is a beautiful patio filled with flowers, where she listens to birds and feasts her eyes on the green grass and blue sky.
Just as she transformed her barren yard into a blooming oasis, in her hospice work Beiter has cultivated hope amidst the hard, cold realities of loss and grief — realities she knows all too well on a very personal level.
Beiter has always been an idealistic person who wanted to serve others. She came to Wagner with her twin sister, Kathleen (shown above), to study nursing at a Lutheran college, because she wanted to serve in Christian medical missions.
At the end of her sophomore year, a senior named Brian O’Connor invited her to the prom after meeting her at a mixer between his fraternity, Phi Sigma Kappa, and her sorority, Alpha Omicron Pi. “He gave me a nosegay of violets instead of a proper corsage, and that won my heart,” she remembers.
They started dating, and he swept her off her feet. Even when she transferred to Columbia and he went to graduate school at Indiana University, their romance grew. After he finished his master’s, they married; and after she finished her bachelor’s in nursing, they moved to Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, where Brian worked at Geneva College and Katherine worked as a public health nurse. They had two children, David and Ruth Ann. Just a few years later, in 1969, Brian finished his Ph.D. and was named dean of admissions at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. They were a happy, stable young family with a bright future.
On November 14, 1970, Katherine was at home in Huntington, awaiting Brian’s return from a trip to East Carolina University with the Marshall football team. Most of the team and the coaches, plus administrators and local boosters, had traveled together on a chartered jet.
Just short of the Huntington airport, that jet crashed into a hillside.
All 75 people aboard died. The crash is still known as the worst sports-related tragedy in U.S. history.
“Our lives were torn apart,” Katherine says. As she wrote years later in an article for Light and Life magazine, “No one survived the fiery plane crash, but I know three persons who survived the months of grief, despair, and emptiness, then the years of not having a husband or a father. Those three people are my son, David; my daughter, Ruth Ann; and myself, Brian’s widow.”
After Brian’s death, Katherine fell into a depression that persisted for many months. She started to look for help through her faith and her friends. After about 18 months, she and the children moved to Utica, New York, the area where she grew up and where her parents still lived. “It was like God took a hold of our lives and moved us, figuratively and literally,” she says.
As she discovered a deeper connection to her faith, she began to heal from the depression. She joined a church in Utica and also became involved in a Christian women’s club, which gave her opportunities to talk about her experiences of loss and healing.
“It helped me to grow spiritually in my walk with the Lord and to share my walk,” she says. “Without the club, I would never have thought to talk about these personal things and how Jesus rescued me from the ashes of grief.” Invitations came to speak to other Christian groups, and she traveled all over New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, telling her story.
“I have learned beautiful lessons from hurting hearts.”
In addition, she resumed her profession as a nurse with the visiting nurses association in Utica. She showed a bent toward working with patients and their families who were facing the dying process. “Others felt uncomfortable, but I felt OK,” she recalls. “I felt challenged about being able to be in that position.
“Because of what I had gone through and the comfort I received in my terrible despair, God enabled me to provide comfort to others in that situation,” she adds.
At the same time, she was frustrated with these patients’ situations. She saw symptoms out of control, unmanaged pain, and families in grief and chaos. They needed “a team of people who could handle all this,” she says. She then learned about Utica Hospice and joined their all-volunteer team, which included a doctor, nurse, social worker, and chaplain.
When a scholarship opportunity arose for her to study for a master’s degree in gerontology and community health at Syracuse University, she took it so that she could become qualified to lead a certified hospice program. In 1980, she became the nurse coordinator of Hospice Buffalo. In that role, she made the initial visit to patients and their families to assess their needs and explain how hospice worked. “I loved it,” she says. “It was a privilege.”
Thirteen years after losing Brian, Katherine remarried and moved to Chautauqua County, New York, where she worked with an all-volunteer hospice referral service and transformed it into a full, certified hospice program. She also served as a consultant on preventing elder abuse, and she taught courses on death and dying to student nurses.
In 1992, she released the first edition of her book, Comfort in Dying: Reflections of a Hospice Nurse (available through Amazon). “Over the years of nursing dying patients and caring for their family members, I have learned beautiful lessons from hurting hearts,” she writes in the preface. “They have taught me much about the pain and the joys of the experience of dying.”
The book also includes stories about her own experiences of loss and grief in her family: Not only Brian’s death and its effect on her and her children, but also her father’s sudden death of a heart attack, and the passing of her twin sister, Kathleen, from cancer at age 42.
When her second husband, George Beiter, died in 1997, they were both as prepared as two people can be. George had been a volunteer for the hospice program, but in the end he died at the hospital, with Katherine at his side.
Now, at age 75, Katherine Beiter is still busy learning, reading, writing, and helping others. She shares her modest home with her beloved six-year-old Maltese named Chloe. Her children and grandchildren are a big part of her life. Her kitchen table is covered with her books and writing projects. “Never tire of your quest for insight,” proclaims a plaque overlooking this scene. “I wish I had more time in my life, because I have books I would like to spend more time studying,” she says.
For the recent 45th anniversary of the Marshall tragedy, she assembled a chapbook of writings entitled He Makes All Things Beautiful: Reflections of a Marshall Football Plane Crash Survivor. (If you would like a copy, contact Beiter at email@example.com.)
“I believe with all my heart and soul that one can move on [from grief] with good, professional support and with God in their lives,” she says. “Those two things are very important.
“I would say that grief never ends, but it changes,” she adds. “It’s a passage. Sometimes it takes years, but you can move from one spot to another.”
Editor's Note, March 29, 2016: This story was updated to correct Mrs. Beiter's sorority, Alpha Omicron Pi.