Torn too soon from the fabric of our life

HERALD-LEADER STAFF WRITERSJune 14, 2007 

Tim Snoddy left half a cup of coffee on the counter, a pair of polished riding boots on the floor and a raft of open court cases behind when he boarded Flight 5191 last Sunday.

Marcie Thomason left a wedding registry of crystal wine glasses and silver flatware at Macy's and her superstar legacy at Henry Clay High School.

George Brunacini left a stable of pregnant mares he hoped would produce the next Kentucky Derby winner.

The wreckage of Flight 5191 has been cleared away. For all the loved ones of the victims, children, siblings, mothers and fathers, the initial shock may be over. Now comes the reckoning. Now everyone must begin to calculate the holes -- big and small, tangible and emotional -- left in the fabric of their families' lives. In all our lives.

With the loss of some, the tears in the fabric will reach beyond Lexington, to Sri Lanka, to Leawood, Kansas, to New Mexico.

The threads of other people's lives stay closer to home. They loved their families and took care of them. They loved their church or their friends or their gardens -- or all of it.

Paige Winters was 16. The hole she left at Shawnee Mission East High School in Leawood, Kan., had friends blogging their love to one another. The blog entries talked about how they had hugged all day at school, without boundaries. She had just decided on buying a thoroughbred in Lexington that will never travel to Kansas, never partner with her in jumping competitions, never feel her hug his neck in victory or defeat.

Jon Hooker and Scarlett Parsley Hooker, said UK President Lee Todd, "held all the promise that youth and love carry." They leave wide, gaping holes not just with friends and family, but with a small swim team in Laurel County that Parsley founded five years ago. They're called the Barracudas, and on a swim team directory, she's still listed as their coach.

Priscilla Johnson will leave an empty balcony seat every Sunday at Main Street Baptist Church.

Brian Byrd and Judy Rains were supposed to be married Aug. 29 in St. Lucia. The Richmond couple had not forgotten their friends, inviting them to a Sept. 9 reception when they got home from their island escapade. The invitation read: "We're getting ready to depart on a romantic trip, which is only the start of a great adventure."

Richmond is deprived of an adventure. St. Lucia will not have the benefit of their company.

Larry Turner's absence stretches across the state. Turner oversaw 1,000 people at UK as the director of agricultural extension, the office that's supposed to bolster agricultural life in this state. Turner had big thoughts and big plans for raising better pigs and cows, for helping people lose weight, for turning Kentucky around. He had a plan to move UK's agricultural extension service into an online database for the whole world.

"He had a true missionary spirit about him; he really wanted to help people improve their lives," said one of his colleagues, Carla Craycraft.

The programs will go on, of course, but Laura Stephenson wonders who else will look out for people like her. She'd been an extension agent in Clark County for 16 years when Turner encouraged her to apply for a big promotion she didn't think she'd get. Now she oversees other agents all over southeastern Kentucky. "He brought everyone along with him," she says.

And then there's Tony Green, who will no longer have Turner to lead the couples' Bible Study Group at Southland Christian Church.

"There's not anyone who can fill Larry's shoes; he's had a great impression on so many lives," he said.

Turner's wife, Lois, and their three children console themselves with their faith and his, and the legacy of how he looked at the world, she said.

"Larry had a great faith in people and what they can accomplish," she said. "He saw his role as the encourager, of trying to make a difference in people's lives."

Tim Snoddy only oversaw a handful of employees in his accounting business. The vast stores of knowledge, from whose tax return was due to the ways you find lost money in a big corporation, were in Snoddy's agile brain.

He was supposed to testify in a civil trial next week, something he did frequently because he'd developed expertise in financial complications or downright fraud. The trial will probably be delayed, said Terry McBrayer, whose law firm had hired him.

"He was a unique kind of guy," McBrayer said. "We'll have to go out of state to find somebody else. You know there's a real ripple effect beyond the personal side of all of this."

Gil Johnson is helping Snoddy's family go through the stacks of papers and files in his office. For him, he knew his best friend was gone when he went to Snoddy's house, where he lived alone, and saw that coffee cup and those boots. The black shoe polish was still sitting on the kitchen counter.

"He had polished them the night before, right before he left."

Marcie Thomason grew up as supported as it's possible to be, part of a huge brood of Lears, her mother's family, and Thomasons. The 10 first cousins in Marcie's generation grew up together, in and out of each other's houses. Even in a family of successful people, such as her uncle, lawyer and developer Bill Lear, Marcie Thomason became, let's face it, something of a legend.

"The whole package" is how two different teachers separately described her, incredibly smart, impossibly athletic and, for all those gifts, amazingly nice.

She was a ferocious soccer player, and a ferocious student who graduated as salutatorian from Henry Clay. On her soccer team, she was known as "The Rock" for her tenacity as the sweeper, the defender right before the goal. Her coach, Steve Fugmann, said that she was, basically, another coach.

"Once, she had to miss a practice and it was like a party and we didn't get much done," he said. "When she came back the next day, she never had to say a word, everybody fell in line."

And it's not as though she was the Queen of the Cool Girl Clique either, as such a standout might become. "It's so funny because she would hate this, hate all this crying," says her cousin, Carrie Lear Milner. "She didn't like to be the center of attention."

U.S. District Judge Jennifer Coffman remembered when her daughter, Blair, was trying out for the varsity soccer team as a freshman. Marcie was a senior and one of the captains.

"Marcie was so encouraging to her, even whispering suggestions during the tryout," Judge Coffman wrote in an e-mail. "My daughter came home beaming and incredulous that this superstar senior, so forbidding to others on the soccer field, had been nice to her, a freshman nobody."

Marcie left Kentucky for the University of Virginia, where, not surprisingly, she graduated near the top of her class. Afterwards, not surprisingly, she passed her CPA exam on her first attempt and moved to Washington, where she became engaged to Charles Cutchin Powell. They were to be married Sept. 30. That's why the 25-year-old had come back to town last weekend, to wrap up the final details and attend a wedding shower given by one of her mother's friends on Saturday evening.

"It was a good day," is all Milner could say.

Cutchin Powell must now face life without Marcie. Her two younger sisters, Melissa and Laura, two more sports stars who followed Marcie to UVa, must face life without their role model. "Everything she achieved was the standard," Laura said.

One of Marcie's former teachers, Mary Lynne Lovingood, says that Marcie's death has left an obvious and enormous gap for her family and the community.

"But there's this hole of where she would have gone, what she could have done in her professional and personal life," she said.

For her large, close circle, the hole will appear when the telephone doesn't ring with Marcie's voice chirping an invitation over the line.

"Whenever she was in town, we had to come over for a cookout at her mom and dad's," Milner said. "Marcie was the champion at calling the family together."

A little more than a year ago, when the Gulfport, Miss., Habitat for Humanity asked for applications for Habitat housing, only five people showed up for the informational meeting. Then came Katrina. The next time the home-building organization asked for applications, 350 submitted their names.

Among the devastated coastal city's first efforts to recover South Carolina Avenue was a 13-house building project. It was Pat Smith's idea, his plan, his ability to find resources, his belief and his sweat that would make the street come alive again.

"He had a contagious kind of attitude," says Kent Adcock, associate director of field operations for Habitat International. "He taught me perseverance in the worst of conditions."

Thirteen houses in Mississippi was nothing. Three months after the 2004 tsunami that displaced 5 million, he put back together an entire village in Sri Lanka. Six months after that, he went to the Indian coast to do the same for people even less fortunate. The number of houses he built in his lifetime didn't matter. One house was better than no houses. One street, a start. One village, entirely doable.

The amount of sewage he'd waded through in far-flung locales on their worst days was matched only by the tide of paperwork he successfully navigated.

Those who will miss him will surely be the people of Mississippi, though they'll get their houses on South Carolina Avenue.

"We've redoubled our efforts now," says Adcock. "He showed us all that in order to do this work in this environment it has to be a calling. He generated the kind of enthusiasm and belief that anything could be done. In that way, he replicated himself in a lot of other people because they have seen his example."

Driven by the fundamental belief that everybody deserves good shelter, Pat Smith and the hole he leaves in his wake will be felt hardest by those who will never experience him. Those are the people unknowingly in the path of the next calamity who may have to wait longer, sleep less securely, huddle and pray for a strength that will not come.

"So many more years ahead of him," says Adcock, "so many more houses."

On the wall of Pat's Gulfport, Miss., field office: Pictures of volunteers and a sign that reads, "Team #1 KY Planting the Seed." Now attached to all the plans that grace the bulletin board in his office, a new clipping: "Plane Crash Costs Habitat Its Top Volunteer."

Adcock says he believes each of us is born with a bucket full of blessings we can disperse at will.

"Pat made sure he died with an empty bucket."

The horse industry is full of big talkers with big pockets. And then there are the people who exist under the radar, quietly breeding and bringing up race horses. Dan Mallory was one of these. A breeder, an agent, an all-around, old-fashioned horseman. At the sales, he wasn't in the bidding wars with Arab sheikhs and Irish magnates, but he was always there, working hard. As such, he, like George Brunacini, who also perished on Flight 5191, was the lifeblood of an industry that is today diminished.

"Yes, we have some prominent people, but our community is made up of small and midsize operations, and having a loss like this shatters all the way through," said Geoffrey Russell, director of sales at Keeneland. "Some people like to beat their chests, but he let his horses speak for him, as did Mr. Brunacini."

Mallory, 55, left his Meadow Haven Farm, his wife Edith, his four children and three stepchildren. But he also left people like Chris Swann, who, like his father before him, owned horses in partnership with Mallory.

"He taught me everything, from how to appraise a horse to how to get the best bang for your buck with stud fees," he said. "Dan was the epitome of the old Kentucky hardboot, although by no means hard and by no means old."

George Brunacini was not originally from here, but he would not have been ashamed of being called a Kentucky hardboot either.

His life was divided between New Mexico and the commonwealth. Back in Albuquerque, he left a mother, brothers, children and grandchildren, a construction and real-estate business and a community that pretty much thought he helped give them economic vitality and a vision for something better. In Scott County, he left a 200-acre farm, a bereft girlfriend, loyal friends, a house that looked like it belonged in Albuquerque and 120 horses that could only be happy in the sweetest of bluegrass.

Flower Alley, a Kentucky Derby contender last year, was bred on Brunacini's farm and ran yesterday at Saratoga. He was ridden by a black-banded jockey. That was the horse Brunacini made into something fabulous.

Back at the barn in Georgetown are mares pregnant with possibilities of what Brunacini, who acted as his own farm manager, would have done for them. He was known to have planned three years ahead for every baby born. He was known to get attached.

Andolini, a two-year-old dark bay, waits for Brunacini to return. Andolini Ð who knew the man's voice and could smell the man's scent Ð was affectionately called "Itchy."

Brunacini would personally lead Andolini in and out of the barn at night and used to know it was time to rub the colt's belly when the colt so indicated. The day before his death, Brunacini spent watching Andolini run. Gallop, really. Reminiscent of his daddy, Fusaichi Pegasus.

But Brunacini left behind something besides Pegasus progeny. Robin Riesenbeck, a trainer who works at Brunacini's Bonna Terra Farms, remembered a colt who got salmonella. The vets said to put it down. George said, "No, I'm keeping this baby alive." Told the baby would never make a racehorse, Brunacini didn't care. He fed the colt grain by hand and it lived to run with the big horses in the big field that the big man made for them.

Capt. Jeff Clay left a wife burdened with what may prove to be an unrelenting load. Amy Clay will have to defend her pilot husband against all comers. Against those who say he chose the wrong runway last Sunday. Against those who will always wonder how careless he had to be to miss every sign that disaster was looming. Against those who will say he killed 49.

She has asked us not to prejudge her husband. She has insisted all week, in the midst of her own hideous grief, that her husband was the most meticulous of men, the most careful, the most loving.

She will need that love to hold onto in the worst of times ahead.

Just like everybody else.

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