Remembering Montoursville, another community that lost so many, too soon
I sat on the floor of Will Rogers’ Lycoming County living room on a hot summer afternoon in late July. The year was 1996.
Will was a frail man. Complications with diabetes had taken a toll on him.
But his health concerns didn’t stop him from sneaking a few cigarettes that afternoon. He talked, and I listened and offered a few kind words. He was a father grieving.
On the early evening of July 17, Will’s daughter, Kimberly, and 15 of her Montoursville High School classmates died when their plane, TWA Flight 800, exploded over the Atlantic Ocean near Long Island. They were only minutes into their flight from New York City to France.
In all, 230 people, including 5 chaperones with the Montoursville French class, lost their lives that evening.
The school kids, some of them entering their senior year like Kimberly, had their lives cut short in a horrific way.
Montoursville is a small, tight-knit community, close to 5,000 in population. To lose that many at one time, it’s still hard to think about.
Last week’s massacre in Connecticut — really, any unspeakable loss of children — always brings me back to Montoursville.
I was in my mid-20s, a reporter for the local paper, and we were tasked with covering the community’s loss. We had to balance the needs of the public with the needs of family, friends and the community.
I don’t have to tell anyone how difficult that can be. And listening to the criticism this week on how some of the media have been handling themselves with the Connecticut story — to getting the facts wrong to shoving microphones in 6-year-old’s faces — I can say I’m not proud to be grouped in with those folks.
But please, don’t paint us with the same broad brush. There are some good, kind, respectful reporters in Newtown. They have a job to do. A very important job.
I can say that because I know important stories are being told through these tragedies. And no paycheck, no bump in circulation numbers or jump in online statistics are ever the reasons we do what we do.
Will taught me that.
I was invited into Will’s home after he read one of the stories I wrote about another student’s funeral. I covered three student funerals that summer.
Will wanted to talk about his daughter. I needed to listen.
Kimberly was an only child. Will was a stay-at-home dad. He wasn’t too keen on having her go to Paris with her French class. But Kimberly convinced him otherwise. She was a beautiful girl. Long brown hair, a shy smile. It was her turn to experience another country, a life beyond a small town.
I sat with Will for a couple hours. He showed me photos of Kimberly, the flowers and condolences his family received. He was an artist — a very good one — and he showed me some of his work.
And he cried, his sadness at times was overwhelming. I asked a few questions, but mostly I listened. It’s what Will needed.
When I got up to leave, he stopped me at the front door. He hugged me.
His words he left with me still resonate. He said he didn’t care if I wrote a single word about his loss. He thanked me for listening, for kindness that I showed in his loss.
I did my best to write a story that represented the Rogers’ struggle and Kimberly’s short life. After it ran, I received a package in the mail.
In it was a drawing Will made for me, a sketch of a mill in the middle of winter. “Frozen Grist,” he called it. At the bottom left was a small thank-you note. The bottom right, the dates of Kimberly’s birth and her death.
Will died four years later, but not before giving parenting another try. He and his wife, Kathy, welcomed another girl into the world in 1998. A new beginning for the Rogers’ family.
When it was time for our family to move into our first home in 2001, my husband had Will’s sketch framed for me. On the back of it, was a copy of another writer’s work: Will’s obituary story. I hang it proudly in my office at home, a reminder that what we do does make a difference.
Some days, it has to.