Legacy of 9/11 victim remains shining light

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May 1, 2011 - 7:00pm

Open the door to the Jennifer L. Dorsey-Howley Performing Arts Center at Lincoln's Southeast High School and you'll find students getting ready for their technical performance class. Like countless high school students before her and since, Jennifer Dorsey was involved in the Southeast theater. She loved to sing. She loved to act. She believed in angels. And she died on 9/11.

"The thing I remember most about her is her smile," said Carol Svoboda, Southeast High School theater director. "She had an absolute radiant smile that lit the whole room.

Svoboda has been the theater teacher at Southeast for 33 years. Jennifer was one of her students. Carol says it's because of Jennifer, and the type of person she was, that the school in 2009 opened the Jennifer L. Dorsey-Howley Performing Arts Center.

"If you look on the box office, the family chose a series of words that were all representative of Jennifer and of her spirit," said Svoboda.

Words like stunning, loving, focused and committed are chiseled into the ticket window wall. Patrick Hunter-Pirtle is the principal at Southeast and someone who worked closely with Jennifer's husband Brian on the renovation to the theater auditorium.

"I remember having a meeting where the architect was showing him a picture of the ticket booth and down in the corner there was some reference to the World Trade Center," said Hunter-Pirtle. "And he was pretty adamant. I want this to be a tribute to her life, not her death and so I don't want the focus on her death. I want the focus on her life and what she did for this school and what she did for this country."

What she did for her country, according to first-hand accounts, was try to save the lives of her co-workers. Jennifer worked for the AON Corporation, a risk management insurance company. She worked on the 92nd floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center, six floors above where United Airlines Flight 175 penetrated the structure. Pregnant with her first child, Jennifer was last seen guiding co-workers to a stairwell - making certain they were safe before leaving.

Principal Hunter-Pirtle says he feels it's his responsibility to see that his theater and music students understand the significance behind the memorial.

"We work hard at keeping on that oral history of who she was and of her life," said the principal. "And then every program that is held in this auditorium that has a physical paper program has a tribute to Jennifer Dorsey-Howley and has her life in it."

Jennifer was just one of nearly 3,000 people killed on 9/11. Osama bin Ladin was the architect of the coordinated attacks which struck the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and if not for the brave men and women aboard United Flight 93, more untold destruction. Students in class today were only six or seven in 2001 but say it's not hard to draw inspiration from someone they never met.

"When they renovated the theater, we learned about Jennifer L. Dorsey-Howley, the things that she did on 9/11," said senior Beau Pullman. "And it's true that the renovation doesn't reflect 9/11 that much."

What it does reflect are the events in Jennifer's life, represented along the walls of the auditorium by small, white LED lights. The highest point is a single, blue LED light visible only from stage.

"When we're on stage we can look at those and we can see how her life moved along," said Pullman. "As a performer and a technician I can still see Jennifer when I look into the house and see all these lights that represent her life and the story that went along with it."

On this the day after President Obama announced the death of bin Laden - the man responsible for killing so many Americans - Principal Hunter-Pirtle says he thinks most people are thinking what Brian Howley is thinking about: remembering how they're loved one touched so many lives.

"I don't know if there is closure," said Hunter-Pirtle. "I think, even though Brian Howley has survived his grief. But if anything maybe this is what provided closure for him. Because I think he was proud of the fact that he's continued her name. That he's continued the legacy she left behind. And there is something physical that he can bring his family to and say, this is who I was married to."

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