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12 Sep 2011

9/11: Remembering three lives lost

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September 12, 2011 Category: Stateside Posted by:

By Sharon Pendana



On the night of Sept. 10, 2001, in Columbia, Md., middle-school teacher Sarah Clark and her fiancé, John Milton Wesley, discussed places: where they’d hold their impending wedding reception, his next-day meeting to secure locations for the HBO series The Wire and her early-morning flight to a lovely California locale.


Nearby, in northern Virginia, Peggie Hurt, a civilian accountant for the U.S. Army, treated her godmother, affectionately called “Dunc,” to an 86th-birthday dinner. Some 200 miles away in Manhattan, with flashes of lightning illuminating his sky-high studio on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower, sculptor Michael Richards watched the Giants-Broncos game and bade fellow artist Monika Bravo — who left that day with a videotape of their breathtaking view — goodnight before returning to work on his bronze sculptures. Over the bridge, at Brooklyn’s Tavern on Dean, I had a relaxed dinner meeting with a friend.


By the time I lazily awoke the next morning, bride-to-be Sarah had boarded American Airlines Flight 77 to chaperone students at National Geographic’s Sustainable Seas Expedition in the Channel Islands of Santa Barbara, Calif.; Peggie had placed a wake-up call to her friend Phyllis and already made her way to work, a Pentagon post that the small-town girl had held for only two weeks; and Michael, after having worked through the waning darkness and slept in his studio rather than make the long trek home to Rosedale, Queens, likely readied himself for an art handler’s gig.


I flipped on the TV at about 9 AM., saw the live coverage of the burning Tower 1 and watched just seconds later as United Flight 175 slammed into Tower 2. Stunned, I phoned my then-husband, who was working in Manhattan, thankfully away from what would become ground zero. Our thoughts turned to those we knew who might have been in harm’s way. I frequently checked my two-way pager, hoping for a response to a message I had sent to my friend Michael: “You must be swamped with messages, but please let me know you’re safe.”


When I learned of the Flight 77 plunge into the Pentagon, I had concerns for my mama, those in my native D.C. and the threat of a nation under siege. It would be a day or two before I learned that my beloved sixth-grade math teacher, Sarah Clark, and Peggie Hurt, a family friend from my father’s tiny Southside Virginia hometown of Kenbridge, had been killed in a fiery collision. Shortly after that, I got the news that Michael had died that same morning in the World Trade Center.


Sarah Miller Clark (April 6, 1936-Sept. 11, 2001)


I entered sixth grade at Keene Elementary hoping that, like my sister Michele three years earlier, I would be placed in Sarah Clark’s homeroom class. A friend and fellow classmate, Carla Garnett, reminisced about her in a September 2009 blog post: “Sarah Clark was the teacher every kid wanted for sixth grade — just strict enough that the classroom never fell into free-for-all, just cool enough so that class time was never too predictable.”


Both Carla and I landed in her math class and feel privileged to have been taught by her. She was patient, kind and deeply skilled at finding the workable paths between curricula and individual student understanding. It is no surprise that the excellent, committed teacher maintained her dedication to educating the children of D.C. well into her 60s.


As my sister says, “Miss Clark was born to teach. It wasn’t just a job, but a calling.” The Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sister was smart and elegant, with glinting eyes and an easy smile. It is her smile I see when I recall her joy in recognizing when we, her students, “got it.”


Peggie Maxine Hurt (Feb. 27, 1965-Sept. 11, 2001)


Peggie Hurt was thrilled about her new position at the Pentagon, a promotion she had diligently sought. By Sept. 11, 2001, she had just completed training on the far side of the complex and was settling into her new office in the Army-occupied western side.


I’d known her peripherally as a friend of my Kenbridge kinfolk. Everyone loved big-hearted Peggie; she was like a little sister to my cousin Wanda, and she’d dated my cousin James. I remember her warm, friendly manner and sweet-spiritedness.


At 36 she’d lived in the Washington, D.C., area for a number of years, but she went down home every first and third Sunday of the month to lend her voice to the church choir. She organized a yearly trip with her crew to the Freedom Classic basketball game between Virginia State and Virginia Union universities, held over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend in Richmond. The group hasn’t made the trip since her passing.


Michael Rolando Richards (Aug. 2, 1963-Sept. 11, 2001)


I met New York-born, Kingston, Jamaica-raised Michael Richards on the dance floor at Buddha Bar in the mid-1990s, when my friend Christie introduced a group of friends to her “brilliant artist” boyfriend. I got a glimpse of that brilliance soon after at his artist-in-residence exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, N.Y., and I happily bore witness over the years as he continued to gain recognition, create an impressive body of work and maintain his good-natured humility.


The new millennium held great promise. He began the year with a National Association for Advancement in the Arts residency in Miami, which would culminate in a show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. While on a South Beach sojourn, I visited his bright studio space on Lincoln Road, where he was continuing his powerful Tuskegee Airmen series. We’d always been friendly, but it was there that we really bonded. Mike had an endearing ability to decant the goodness of any situation and leave all sediment behind, a quality that made for a loyal, compassionate friend.


In New York that spring, we spent an afternoon viewing a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition, “Art and Oracle: Spirit Voices of Africa.” Mike was particularly interested in the pierced wooden Nkisi N’kondi, power figures of sacred healing that influenced his work.


I was visiting family in D.C. when his Corcoran show opened that June. At the exhibition reception, Michael posed for a photo with a gallery security guard, an older black man, each standing a little taller with pride at the inclusion of his work in the museum. It was a sweet moment.


In 2001, Mike excitedly announced his acceptance into the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s World Views artist residency, which included a studio in the World Trade Center, where he invited me to “come visit and enjoy the beautiful view.” The business of life intervened, and I never got the chance.


On Sept. 11, 2011, American Airlines Flight 11 pierced Tower 1 just as sculpted planes impaled the gilded body cast of Michael’s own likeness in his seminal work, Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, 1999. Never to reach 40, he’d unknowingly predicted his own fate.


Hours into that awful day, my two-way buzzed with a response from Mike — momentary relief — only to discover that his friend Kira had reached out to all his contacts from his email account, looking for information. In those uncertain first days, I, like many, posted photos and visited hospitals. I showed a picture of Michael to an emergency room guard who thought he’d seen him wheeled in — another false hope. It was Kira who would share the news days later that DNA evidence confirmed Michael’s mercifully swift death.


Michael is laid to rest alongside his mother, Mary, in the ruddy, bauxite-rich soil of St. Catherine, Jamaica. When I visited the cemetery with Mike’s dear friend Roger, it lifted our spirits to see swarms of chartreuse butterflies clustered in rhythmic, synchronized flight over his grave.


Michael once said of the flight themes in his work that “the idea of flight relates to my use of pilots and planes, but it also references the black church, the idea of being lifted up, enraptured or taken up to a safe place — to a better world.”


The similarities of each person in this tragic trinity, the sweetness of their souls, calmness of their demeanors and the impassioned pursuit of their avocations is striking. Sarah, Peggie and Michael died while in service of their calling — an honorable passage. I thank them every one for their endeavors, for alighting in my life; and I wish them peace in the sweet by-and-by.


Sharon Pendana is a regular contributor to The Root.

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