23 February 2009

A "strong woman" remembered in Buffalo by family and friends

February 20, 2009, Buffalo, NY

Beverly Eckert always spoke fondly to me about Buffalo. It was where she had met Sean at a high school dance, where they fell in love, and married in a simple ceremony in her sister's back yard. It was the place she returned to, on holidays and other occasions, happy and sad, to celebrate the birth of a niece or nephew, exchange presents with family at Christmas, and receive hugs of comfort on anniversaries of Sean's death.

The plan, before all of this, was to arrange a trip to Buffalo with Beverly, and she would be my tour guide of the landscape of her life before moving off to Boston and New Jersey and Stamford. She was going to show me people and places from her life before September 11, 2001.

My tour of Buffalo this past weekend was shorter and sadder than the one I had earlier planned.

It was a city still in mourning for the 50 lives lost in the crash of Flight 3407. I checked in on Friday afternoon at the Lord Amherst Hotel, which sits on Main St. where it crosses Interstate 90, just a few miles from the airport. In this simple, but homey medium-sized lodging Beverly would stay when her relatives had no spare beds. I decided to drive down Main St., toward Clarence and the site of the crash.

At schools, offices and firehouses, flags flew at half mast. Sign boards contained messages of condolence to those lost. And along the road to Clarence Center, the each light post was tied with two plastic ribbons: one black, one white. The Zion Lutheran Church's sign had a message offering counseling services. The roads leading to the crash site were guarded by New York State Troopers, sitting in their vehicles, engine's idling to ward off the blustery cold. Only the cleanup crews could enter. Heavy digging vehicles filled dump truck after dump truck with soil and debris from the crash site. A Buffalo News article reported that all that was left once the crews were done was crushed stone to fill the crash crater. An officials said the site would be graded and seeded come spring. Karen Wielinksi, whose husband died when the plane came down on their house on Long Street, said that for now the site will remain vacant.

There really wasn't much to see, but I had to come to Beverly's "ground zero."

Later, I drove back down Main St. toward Buffalo, and stopped in at the venue for Beverly's memorial service, St. Joseph University Church. It was quiet inside, the pews empty, only the vigil candles lit. The high, vaulted ceiling is painted sky blue, and the stained glass windows turned the outside light into rich gem tones of ruby, emerald and sapphire.

February 21, 2009

Those who came from near and far to pay tribute to Beverly Eckert arrived early and in large numbers. By the time the service began, many hundreds stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the pews and chairs. There were members of Beverly's family in the right front rows, facing the alter. And Sean's family were across the aisle.

Family members of 9-11 victims came to pay respects. Some of them had worked tirelessly with her in the many struggles they took on. After the opening hymn, "Make Me a Channel of Your Peace," a small group of family members lit candles on the alter to commemorate the 50 who died the week before in Clarence Center.

Karen Eckert had invited me to sit with the family members, and I was grateful for the honor, though feeling trepidation over any perceived sense of intrusion by an outsider. But I was put right at ease by Lisa, a Buffalo-area family member, who put a comforting hand on my shoulder the first time I quietly sobbed. She offered me tissues, but I told her I'd come prepared. The night before I had dined on the spicy wings of the Anchor Bar, and had grabbed a big handful of their absorbent napkins, knowing I'd need them at the church. Tears gave way to smiles. There is a truth about 9-11 family members, they know well how to offer comfort. So many tears, so many gently offered shoulders to shed them on.

Beverly's sister-in-law, Cynthia Blest, read from the Book of Proverbs. Beverly's friend, Nada Radulovich, played the Prelude from Bach's Suite in G Major -- haunting, soaring strains rose from the cello, and stirred my heart as if the bow was being pulled across it. Beverly had loved Bach. Ray Eckert, Beverly's brother, read words from Martin Luther King, Jr. And Beverly's sister, Margot, carried us through Beverly's full life with her inspired and loving words, from playful child to "strong woman." Her poetry made us smile as vivid images of Beverly flashed in our minds.

“Strong woman, my sister. Asking questions, getting answers. Pushing governments, prodding presidents, speaking justice,” Margot's words resonated in the cavernous sanctuary.

The Buffalo News article about the service noted that Beverly's brother-in-law, Bill Bourque, "also reflected on her relentless drive in the face of losing her husband."

“In the aftermath of Sept. 11," he said, "she gained access to the powerful and became well-known and well-respected. We knew she was not in it for herself. She was in it so that this should never happen to anyone again. Because of her, our nation became a safer place. She was one of the main reasons the powerful moved at all, because nothing is more powerful than the simple, clear truth.”

One family member had told me afterward that it was the most beautiful of memorial services. The music and the words had created a mood, painted a picture, captured a life, in a wonderfully evocative way. Everyone involved had strong inspiration.

Beverly Eckert had graduated from the Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart in 1969. Her alma mater was preparing to present her with its distinguished alumna award in May, and Beverly was busy working as the chair of her class's 40th reunion committee. But on Saturday, Beverly's high school was the setting for a celebration of her wonderful life. Mourners proceeded down Main St. from St. Joseph about a mile to Sacred Heart, and were greeted on the walk from the overflowing parking lot by some of the school's students.

Inside, a long, quiet line of guests waited to pay their respects to members of the Eckert and Rooney families, who stood in a line in front of the large stage of the auditorium. They shook hands, received warm embraces, exchanged fond words watered sometimes with tears with many, many friends and acquaintances. On a projection screen rising high at center stage flashed photos of Beverly, the Beverly Eckert of Buffalo, Boston and Stamford, smiling her bright smile in the company of sisters and brother and parents and nephews and nieces and Sean. Family and friends, holidays and vacations. It was warm reminiscence of the happy Beverly who lived a normal life for most of her years.

In the high-ceilinged hallway outside, bulletin boards were filled with photos of teenaged Beverly. There were some examples of her early, exemplary writing, a poem titled "What is Love," another one, dark and mysterious, about ashes and an ashtray. Downstairs, in the gym, a band played, good food was laid out, and there were mostly smiles as people share memories.

Sacred Heart has remembered Beverly here and posted media coverage of alumnae remembrances here. And there is also information on the school's Beverly Eckert Memorial Fund.

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