For Monmouth College community, 9/11 attacks were ‘coming-of-age moment’
By Jeff Rankin, College Historian
When the news of Sept. 11, 2001, reached Monmouth College one would imagine the College’s president calling an immediate cabinet meeting to plan strategy. But life is never that predictable.
Instead, then-President Richard Giese was on Interstate 80, driving to a meeting of Associated Colleges of the Midwest presidents in Chicago when the news was announced over the car radio. When Giese heard reports that traffic was not being allowed into Chicago, he turned around and headed back to campus.
The dean of the faculty, George Arnold, was not in his office either. He was teaching a “History of Education” class on the second floor of Wallace Hall.
Melinda Fry ’03, who today is a teacher in Monmouth, recalls sitting in the class and hearing a lot of commotion in the hallway as other classes were apparently dismissing early, but Arnold continued his lecture.
“Once class ended,” Fry said, “I walked back to my dorm in McMichael. The campus seemed eerily quiet and relatively empty, but I still had no idea what events were currently taking place. However, when I arrived at my dorm, my roommate, Tara (Todd) Lewis ’03, had a look of pure terror on her face as she watched live coverage of the news.”
Arnold himself would not hear about the attack until he stopped by the Registrar’s Office after class and bumped into accounting lecturer Craig Cavanaugh.
A perfect autumn day
Meanwhile, it was a serene morning on the Mississippi River about 10 miles north of Burlington, Iowa, where vice president for external relations Dick Valentine had invited Monmouth College trustee Safford Peacock and his wife, Betty, to visit the College’s biology research field station. Along on the trip were biology professors Ken Cramer and Kevin Baldwin.
“It was one of the most perfect autumn days I had ever experienced,” Baldwin remembered. “Sunny, clear, with just a bit of crispness in the air, and a slight breeze. The colors of foliage and sky were super-saturated. It was one of those times where there was no doubt that it is great to be alive.”
The party had stopped in an area that students used for water plant research when a cell phone broke the reverie. It was Valentine’s wife, Lorna ’97, who was fighting back tears. Although cell phone reception was spotty, they were able to make out the words “We’re under attack,” “Twin Towers” and “Pentagon.”
Peacock, the former chairman of the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., was visibly alarmed, and enumerated other potential targets as the party somberly made its way back to the field station and home. “It was the contradiction of being in one of the most peaceful settings possible during an attack against our country that left an indelible impression,” said Valentine.
‘Some sort of dreadful accident’
Another key player in that morning’s drama was the Rev. Kathleen Fannin, college chaplain.
“I was at ShopKo the morning of Sept. 11 when I heard the news,” Fannin said. “I had gone over there to purchase some supplies for Monmouth Christian Fellowship. There was a sudden buzz in the store and when I got to the checkout counter, the clerk said something awful had happened in New York, though she wasn’t quite sure what — some sort of dreadful accident. When I got to my office, the secretary said, “Dean Condon is looking for you.”
Fannin, who didn’t yet own a cell phone, zipped upstairs to dean of students Jackie Condon’s office, where she was told she needed to address the freshmen at 11 a.m. when they gathered for their regular Tuesday convocation. Although her memories of the event are blurry, she believes she included thoughts about violence not being the answer to violence and ended with an interfaith prayer.
Condon, who retired in 2017, recalls watching as students, faculty and staff slowly silently took their seats — unlike the usual boisterous horseplay that usually marked the opening of a convocation. She conferred with associate dean Rajkumar Ambrose about what they could possibly say to help people make sense of the tragedy.
“While there was little we could say,” she reflected, “being present and being together was important as we each began to try to understand this act in our own time and space.”
Ambrose, retired and now living in California, has vivid memories of the assembly.
“When I joined the faculty members standing near the stage, they all said, ‘Let Raj talk to the students,’” he recalled. “I was caught totally off guard. Our son, Vinod, who is a Monmouth graduate, lived near Boston at that time. We had often taken the flight from the East Coast to California. I told the students that I could have been on the United Flight 93 which had been hijacked and crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. The passengers in the four hijacked planes became martyrs because of a cruel play of fate and the hatred for our country among a small group of radical elements in the world. I remember that it was one of the most difficult talks I had to give at our College.”
Physics professor Chris Fasano, who was coordinator of Freshman Seminar that year, said that the convocation that day was originally scheduled to feature English professor Rob Hale speaking about why spelling, formatting and documentation matter, but that it was quickly changed to deal with the tragedy.
“After the convo,” Fasano said, “we met with our freshmen to talk about the events of the day — we sat outside, I think. Everyone was in shock and really just trying to absorb what happened and trying to figure out what happened. I remembered trying to reassure the students and reminding them that it will take some time to figure out what happened. I also asked them to think carefully about things before they made decisions about what they might do personally. If there were ever a time that I could describe as surreal, that was it.”
It was not a prank
One of the students attending the convocation was junior Aaron Cluka, who today lives in New Zealand. He and all the members of his performing arts theme house decided to attend the convocation together, in hopes of gaining news — during those days of few cell phones and internet connections.
“I remember kids panicked because their parents worked in the Sears (now Willis) Tower and hadn’t heard from them,” he said.
At 12:30 p.m., Cluka went to his creative writing class.
“As crazy as it sounds, my professor, Mary Barnes Bruce, was there waiting for us. We had a guest speaker that day — they didn’t show — so we had to wait 15 minutes before we were released. No one was in the mood for creative writing that day.”
While Cluka was a seasoned junior, Anna Beasley Dibble, who is now a vice president for human resources in St. Louis, was an impressionable freshman. When an upperclass neighbor entered her Liedman Hall bathroom as she was getting ready that morning and announced, “We’ve been attacked,” Beasley initially assumed she was referring to a prank by rival Knox College.
After watching the second tower fall, she was in disbelief and called home to check in with her family. “It felt like a coming-of-age moment to know we were living through history — a time that we would remember forever and would change so many lives,” Dibble said.
Amy Fraser Sowinski ’03, today a teacher and travel agent in O’Fallon, Missouri, was in her third-floor room in Grier Hall with her roommate, Meg Welchans ’01, when they first saw the news on the Today show. They went to Stockdale Center to eat, where they heard about the second plane.
Fraser, who had interned at Walt Disney World the year before, began frantically calling everyone she knew to see if her best work friend from the internship was safe.
“Rumors of WDW (Walt Disney World) evacuating were circulating,” she said. “He finally called me back, but they had to carry out a phased closing like they do for hurricanes and they were under high watch. I was sitting in the hallway of Grier Hall talking to him. Everyone was on their phones calling someone.”
Alan Betourne, who is now Monmouth’s head baseball coach, was a freshman on 9/11.
“I remember at baseball practice looking up and there being no planes in the sky due to the grounded flights across the country,” he said. “The ones we did see were fighter jets going to certain cities in case of another attack.”
Another student-athlete, M Club Hall of Famer Jaime Jones Goin ’02, had a similar recollection: “I remember we had an away volleyball game planned. News had already broken, but it was close to our leave time and some players proceeded to the vans that were parked in front of the gymnasium. We all came out of the vans when we heard a plane go over. We knew airspace had been closed, so we were convinced it was Air Force One. Shortly after, Coach (Kari) Shimmin announced the game was canceled, and we were to head to the dorms.”
‘We prayed for peace. We prayed for love.’
Michelle Flaar Carlson is a longtime member of Monmouth’s admission staff, but in 2001 she was sophomore living in Fulton Hall. She had to leave her TV to attend an economics class with the usually cheerful professor Dick Johnston, who had two brothers serving on the NYC police force.
A somber Johnston would later recall that his brother Frank spent many workdays sifting through the rubble of the Twin Towers, looking for body parts and jewelry to help identify victims. One of Johnston’s hometown friends was a firefighter who lost his life.
“It hit and it hit deep,” said Carlson. “My family had just been to DC (and the Pentagon) a few weeks prior. When I went back to my room, I called home and just cried. Although we were far from the attacks and I knew my family was safe, I found comfort in the voices I heard. As I was on the phone, I couldn’t help but think of those who were frantically calling a loved one and not getting an answer. I felt helpless and angry as the day went on. I remember going to a candlelight vigil on campus. We prayed for the victims, their families and the first responders. We prayed for our country. We prayed for peace. We prayed for love. I’ve never felt a sense of community as strong as I felt that night.”
Matt Troha, who is today assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association, was a sophomore living in Winbigler Hall. He notes that at the time, the biggest stories of his adolescence were the OJ Simpson trial and the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. He recalls his mother’s tears over the 1999 Columbine High School massacre having woken him up to the reality of truly horrifying news.
“The cafeteria (that day) had the audio of a TV newscast piped in, and it was absolutely silent as everyone just ate and listened,” Troha said. “There was still very much a feeling that we were waiting for the next domino to fall. Was the next attack going to be that afternoon, that night, the next day? Would it be another plane or something else?”
After lunch, Troha trudged back up the hill to Wallace Hall where professor Lee McGaan ’69 had a note taped to his door telling his class to go home and continue to watch the coverage. “That moment has always stood out to me,” Troha said.
Economics professor Mike Connell was particularly anxious, knowing that two of his former students worked in the World Trade Center. One was a student named Chad, whom he had taught at Lafayette College. The other was Sreeja Kartha ’00, a native of India, who he said was always late to class.
“I was supposed to teach an 11 o’clock class,” Connell remembered. “I went into class, but I could not focus on the material.” After talking about his former students for a few minutes, he canceled class. He later learned that Chad was working out of the office that morning, and that the perpetually late Sreeja was saved because she was late for work.
The world seemed ‘a lot more uncertain and dangerous’
Jason Vana, who is now the owner of a Monmouth marketing firm, remembers a feeling of fear and sickness while viewing what was happening from his Bowers Hall quad.
“The day before that, the world seemed a fairly safe place,” he said. “But watching the attack on the Twin Towers made the world seem a lot more uncertain and dangerous. I think it rocked most of us.”
Vana said that as a result of the attacks, his Class of 2002 decided to create a monument to the first responders, which today stands near the Monmouth tennis courts. Vana was part of the team that wrote the tribute on the plaque.
Jason Paulsgrove ’04, a police officer and business owner in Galesburg, Illinois, was working with the police department auxiliary at the time and got a call early on to respond to the police department. When he tried to get gas in his truck on the way out of town he found long lines at every gas station, with several having already raised their prices.
“In the days following the attacks,” Paulsgrove said, “I realized just how small of a world it is we live in. Everyone you talked to had a personal connection, someone in New York, or someone in Washington. Some had a family member in the air at that time or a friend from high school who had just enlisted.”
On the evening of Sept. 11, Chaplain Kathleen Fannin along with the Rev. Bill Myers ’85 of Faith United Presbyterian Church and Father Kevin Creegan of Immaculate Conception Church counseled students, while the Agape House sponsored a candlelight service in the Auditorium.
A week after the attacks, Chaplain Fannin, who kept a daily journal for years, penned a question that remains as relevant but unanswerable today:
“One week ago, the world changed, and now it is up to those of us who survive to determine how that change will ripple through the rest of human society. Will it rage and destroy, or will it help us to take the barriers between us down? Will it break our hearts open and let our sisters and brothers around the world come in?”
Did you know?
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