It was a sweet run from her Roxborough apartment into the wooded trails of Fairmount Park. Mary Katherine Ladany would have been well into her workout when the bough of a leafy tulip poplar 50 feet above her cracked.
In a random, deadly intersection of time and place, Ladany, a 23-year-old math teacher, crossed under the tree at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, just as the dead limb, heavy as a crossbeam, fell and knocked her to the ground.
A passerby called 911, offered to perform CPR, and stayed with her until the ambulance arrived, said Dan Mercer, whose wife jogged by several minutes after the accident. When police officers arrived, they found Ladany dead, her iPod still playing.
"She was one of the best teachers I ever, ever had," said Amy Green, 17, a student at Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School in North Philadelphia who took 11th-grade Algebra 2 with her last year.
"She would make up projects with M&Ms, and we didn't move on to the next subject until we understood the material," Green said.
Ladany, who had just completed her first year on staff, demonstrated a natural gift for teaching that was matched by her dedication, said principal Charles Whiting. "Despite her short tenure, she's had a great impact," he said.
Ladany (pronounced la-DANE-ee) would come to school early and stay late to tutor students who were having difficulties. From the start, she impressed her colleagues with her candor and creative teaching methods.
"She was a real doll-baby," said Rhonda Baker, head of Dobbins' math team. "Everyone loved her. She was soft-spoken but still firm. And she believed in the kids."
A 2008 graduate of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., where she majored in math and minored in education, Ladany was remembered as a young woman skilled at balancing all aspects of her life. As serious about athletics as she was about her studies, she also knew how to enjoy her friends.
"She was always so outgoing," said Angela Colabelli, a former classmate at Mount Saint Dominic, a Catholic girls high school in Caldwell, N.J. "I just can't believe this happened to her."
The only child of John and Patty Ladany, she grew up in Montclair, N.J. Her father is a banker at Citibank in Manhattan, her mother a librarian at Caldwell College. In high school, she ran track, was a member of the National Honor Society, and in 2004 ranked fourth in her graduating class of 66.
"She was so wonderful, naturally," her mother said. "She made us look like good parents." As long as they can remember, Katie, as she was called, was responsible, well-behaved, and cool under pressure.
"We had a cat once, Calvin," her mother said.
"It was a she," John Ladany added.
"The cat got twisted in a plastic bag. I freaked out," Patty Ladany recalled. "But Katie got hold of it and freed it. Then she told me, 'Mom, next time, why don't you just let me handle it?' She was 7 years old."
A certified lifeguard, she worked as a camp counselor in New Hampshire. One summer during high school, she was selected to be a teaching assistant at Choate Rosemary Hall, the elite Connecticut boarding school.
Her parents said Ladany moved to Philadelphia partially because many of her Bucknell friends were here, but primarily because she was offered the opportunity at Dobbins to have her own classroom and work closely with her students. She shared a modest apartment near Andorra with a girlfriend from college and loved going out to restaurants and strolling Main Street in Manayunk.
"She had opportunities to travel but preferred the familiar," her mother said. "She wanted to be a teacher. I think it was her dream. I also think she would have wanted to be married and have children."
Ladany started planning her teaching career as far back as high school.
Sister Fran Sullivan, of the Dominican Order and head of Mount Saint Dominic, issued this statement: "I have such wonderful fond memories of Katie. I will always praise her for her academic abilities, her unselfish desire to help or pitch in on any circumstance, and her deep sense of integrity and faithfulness to her religious and moral beliefs."
At Bucknell, she joined the Delta Gamma sorority and was president of the rugby club team. Carrie Ingoldsby, a former coach and assistant director in the university campus activities department, described her as enthusiastic and genuine.
"She could be that tough rugby player, but she was also so kind and warm," Ingoldsby recalled. "We just lost such a wonderful person."
News of Ladany's death spread quickly through the running community. Forbidden Drive is an enormously popular route for school cross-country teams and individual runners who can go for miles along the soft dirt path beside the Wissahickon Creek under the soaring forested canopy.
According to Julianne Schieffer, urban forester for Pennsylvania State University in the Philadelphia area, tulip poplars are known to be "weak-wooded as a species," but for a branch to snap off, "usually there are mitigating factors," such as rot or an extreme wind storm.
Ninety percent of a tulip poplar's roots are in the top 18 inches of soil, and sometimes heavy rains over a prolonged period can cause a tree to topple. But in this case, with a heavy branch falling from 50 feet up, Schieffer said, "it sounds like it was just an unfortunate circumstance."
Tulip poplars generally are extremely large trees, topping out at 100 to 120 feet, she said, "so even the smallest branch can hurt you if it falls."
Ladany, 5-foot-9 and wiry, was effortlessly beautiful, more fond of Gap than Neiman Marcus, her family said. She had a personality that "lit up the room," said Whiting, the Dobbins principal.
In 2008, school officials recruited her after meeting her once. In her interview, Whiting recalls, her earnestness and creative ideas made her seem like an ideal candidate.
"We knew we wanted her on our staff," he said.
Confronted with the reality of an urban high school, Ladany's self-confidence faltered during the first few months.
"She got tearful and was really concerned in the beginning," recalled Baker. "She said she was teaching her heart out and worried that the kids weren't receptive. But that showed me she cared. She always wanted to be the best teacher possible, and by the end of the school year, she was absolutely excellent."
Although Ladany withheld personal information that she felt would erode her authority as a teacher, she let her students know her well enough to feel comfortable around her.
Usually dressed in khaki slacks and a white shirt with her wavy hair pulled up in a ponytail, she always looked neat, her students said. (She also had perfect penmanship.) When their work was done, she'd play games with students, sometimes showing them their homes on Google Earth. Other times, she'd let them in on small bits of information.
"She wouldn't tell us where she lived or how old she was. But she told us her favorite color was sky blue, she liked to go to Phillies games, and she liked to listen to John Mayer," said Green, her student. "She also told us that all the women in her family were named Mary, so that's why she went by Katie."
Mychal Bligen, a fellow teacher who lived across from Ladany in Roxborough, said they would often talk about strategies for reaching her students.
"We talked about how you have to show your backbone, and that there are wonderful students in the back of the class as well as in the front," Bligen said.
As absorbed as she was in her work, though, she was enjoying being young and single in Philadelphia. Last week, she and a group of friends hit a series of watering holes, taking advantage of the extended summer happy hours through "Center City Sips."
Ladany was a fan of dollar stores and always kept a bowl of peppermints and butterscotch on her desk, along with her collection of plastic apples and other I Love My Teacher kitsch, Green said.
Her love of math was contagious. For the last two years, there had been insufficient interest to offer pre-calculus. But for this September, in large part because Ladany encouraged her students to give it a try, more than a dozen students signed up for the class, according to Baker.
She turned 23 on June 3, the day before textbooks were due to be returned. So she told her class that for her birthday, she wanted her students to honor the deadline.
They granted her wish, Green said.
"We loved her, and she loved us. To not see her when I go back or walk past her room on the fifth floor will be pain. This is someone I will never forget."
Last summer, when Ladany brought her parents to North Philadelphia to see the school where she would be working, her mother, concerned about the location, said, "Gosh. Are your kids going to be from this neighborhood?"
Ladany smiled. "It's a vo-tech school, so they come from all over the city," she explained. "But Mom, these kids need good teachers, too."
A private funeral for Mary Katherine Ladany will be held Tuesday in Montclair, N.J.
A memorial fund will be established through the Murrell Dobbins Alumni Fund. Details have not been established. Delta Gamma alumnae in the Philadelphia area and from the Epsilon Beta-Bucknell chapter are working to establish a Delta Gamma scholarship in memory of Ladany. For more information, visit www.deltagamma.org or contact the executive offices, 614-481-8169.