As excited as she was to be starting her senior year, a vapor trail of gloom trailed Shintel Savage through the halls on her first day back at school in September.
"I kept thinking about Ms. Ladany," said Savage. "I thought we should do something for her."
Savage's algebra teacher, Mary Katherine Ladany, was killed in August when a tree limb fell on her while she was running on Forbidden Drive. Although Ladany, 23, had only taught at the Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical School for a year, she had such a profound influence on her students that many, like Savage, credit their teacher with changing their lives.
"She was the one who taught me to believe in myself," said Savage, an ebullient 17-year-old who never liked math until she took Ladany's class. Now, Savage says, she plans to go to medical school.
Today, at a ceremony in Dobbins' stately auditorium, Ladany was honored with songs, poems, prayers, plaques, stories, a torrent of tears and a few hearty laughs.
Principal Charles M. Whiting called Ladany "a hero" and said, "This morning, we had rain. But it wasn't rain. It was Ms. Ladany crying because she wanted to be here with us."
The remark made a group of students break down, sobbing. Teachers passed around boxes of tissues.
In a musical tribute, five classmates, snapping fingers and crooning a cappella, sang "It's so hard to say goodbye to yesterday." Dobbins senior Tyerissa Farris read an original "Ode to Ms. Ladany." As if preaching from a transcendent pulpit, Farris intoned, "She's gone to a place where every day is the month of May."
Several speakers noted that there is no way to make sense of the bizarre accident that took the life of someone with so much intelligence, grace, love and generosity. An investigation by Fairmount Park officials found that the tree, a tulip poplar, was healthy. Although they have since increased efforts to clear dead limbs, they said, the likelihood of this kind of tragedy happening again is extremely rare.
Since school started in September, Ladany has been on everyone's mind, said Joanne DiGiuseppe, the ninth grade counselor, but the depth of the school's loss didn't completely sink in until this memorial was organized.
"I've seen more emotion the last few days leading up to this," DiGiuseppe said. During rehearsals, faculty and students wept. "She really was a great teacher. You say these things after someone dies, but she really was."
A small group of Ladany's relatives, many of whom are educators, attended the ceremony.
Ladany's aunt, Phyllis Hayes, teaches kindergarten teacher at Bedminster Elementary School. Ladany's uncle, William Hayes, is principal of Wissahickon High School. Both schools are raising money for a scholarship in their niece's memory, a fund that has already reached $10,000. The money will be awarded to a promising math student at graduation in June.
In a brief statement, Amanda Fegley, one of Ladany's colleagues, offered the students a challenge.
"Ms. Ladany wanted the best from you and for you. In her honor, give your best."
Ladany's father, John, shared insights into his daughter's personal life. She wasn't always as beautiful as in the portrait on their memorial buttons and the plaque that will hang in her honor in the second floor hallway. "When she was younger, she wore big glasses and had terrible teeth!" he said, eliciting squeals of laughter.
She was a vegetarian who loved crabcakes. A truthteller who only lied once, as far as they knew, and that was when they asked if they could friend her on Facebook. (She told them she didn't use Facebook anymore.) An athlete who ran track and rode horses and a staunch devotee of professional sports. "She was a New York Yankees fan," he admitted. If she were here to witness the World Series, he said, "I think she'd be torn tonight."
Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers, a 1969 graduate of Dobbins, was visibly moved by the ceremony. "I've wept for children who have died in fires and for firefighters who have died saving lives, but this teacher..." He paused, searching for words. "It just shows how important teachers are in society. They are our children's salvation."
Given a standing ovation, Ladany's mother, Patty, turned to face the crowd of several hundred students, applauded back and blew a kiss.
Shintel Savage, the student who helped organize the event, appeared in a video with two of her classmates, reminiscing about their former teacher.
"She was a hero," the girls say. Now and then, she knew how to shut people up, but nicely. They mimic her tiny, whisper, "Could you please be quiet?"
Off-camera, a teacher asks the girls if there is anything they would like to say to Ms. Ladany's parents.
"Not only was she their family," one girl says, "she was ours."