Rising from the ashes

Part of nationwide impulse to "make something positive out of this"

When Thomas Heidenberger's wife died Sept. 11, 2001, shock and grief weren't all the Chevy Chase man had to deal with.

Heidenberger, then a 55-year-old airline pilot, had a daughter at Loyola College in Baltimore. He had a son who would be heading to college in a few years.

And as recovery workers labored at the heavily damaged Pentagon — his wife, Michele, had been the lead flight attendant on board American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed there — he started recalculating the family finances. Without Michele's earnings, Heidenberger believed he'd have to sell their house or take out a second mortgage to finance the children's educations.

Then he met Douglas Schmidt.

Schmidt, an investment banker who lives in Towson, founded the Maryland Survivors Scholarship Fund to ensure that the children of Marylanders who lost their lives in the attacks of 9/11 could attend college.

Schmidt, his colleagues and friends raised $300,000. They sponsored dinners and private concerts that brought the families of Maryland victims together for the first time, providing a semblance of community among people who had in common a loss both searingly personal and unprecedentedly public.

The fund has helped six people, including the Heidenbergers' now-adult children, earn their bachelor's degrees. And it will soon help six more, all of whom were 2 or younger that day a decade and a half ago.

"Doug and his fund helped steer us in a positive, forward-moving direction," says Heidenberger, now 70 and retired. "Without people like him, I'm not sure where we'd be today."

Fifteen years after one of America's darkest days, time has softened our sense of raw horror at the attacks. Memories have faded; the date has begun to assume its place in the pages of history.

Today, Americans are channeling their remaining emotions into service.

Maryland volunteers can participate in the National Day of Service and Remembrance, an annual commemoration established by the federal government in 2002.

They can take part in Day to Serve, a joint enterprise of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia that begins Sunday and continues through Oct. 10. Maryland's nearly 300 events will center on a range of missions, including wetlands restoration, urban cleanup and animal rescue.

The Fell's Point Towne Crier program will host its 14th annual awards ceremony honoring "warriors for the community" in the neighborhood square Sunday evening.

All the activity exemplifies what Schmidt says is the best of the American spirit: "This capacity we have to see the glass as half-full, no matter how dire things may be, and find a way to bounce back, do something constructive and thrive."

He began doing so even as the smoke still rose from the crash sites.

Schmidt grew up in Evansville, Ind., the son of a World War II veteran father and a churchgoing mother who volunteered as a youth probation officer.

Neither had attended college, but Schmidt applied to Harvard, got in, studied English literature and excelled.

After graduating, he turned a coveted overseas fellowship into nearly three years of adventure travel.

He trekked across Borneo, spent a week at the Dalai Lama's retreat in India and sailed aboard a tall ship around the Cape of Good Hope. He saw Israel and Iran, and motorcycled the length of Africa.

After graduating from the Yale School of Management in 1985, he climbed the ladder of corporate finance, landing in Baltimore as a vice president with Ferris Baker Watts.

None of it erased the seminal memory of his life.

Schmidt's father, Chester, a three-pack-a-day smoker, dropped dead of a heart attack in 1974. He was 47; Doug was 19.

The Sept. 11 attacks touched the memory like an open wound.

"When you lose a parent as a young person — when you love somebody that is the sun in the sky for you, and that sun goes dark — it's an awful thing," he says, voice quavering. "Part of my motivation about the fund was having been there myself."

Heidenberger believes it may be even simpler than that.

"Doug is a good man," he says.

Schmidt recalls being in his car just after the attacks and thinking about how hard they had hit his adopted home state.

Yes, more than 2,600 people lost their lives at the World Trade Center, a staggering figure. Most were from the New York area. But he was hearing little about how the assaults had hit Maryland.

Officials would eventually determine that Marylanders had died at all three crash sites — 40 at the Pentagon, including 13 aboard Flight 77; two in New York, both Baltimoreans, and one, from Catonsville, in Shanksville, Pa.

This group left behind 69 children, ranging in age from 2 years old to their late teens.

Calling around, Schmidt found nearly everyone he knew harboring the same question he was: "What can I do to help?"

Several had lost friends. Many were mothers or fathers. Most were grief-stricken, frustrated American citizens.

"When 9/11 hit, it hit people like me hard — people in their 30s with kids — and left us feeling paralyzed," recalls Bill McComas, a Towson attorney. "I grew up in a neighborhood where you didn't want to start the fight, but you wanted to finish it. Doug's charity was a way of getting involved."

Twenty people volunteered to raise money.

Ellen Frishberg, a specialist in higher-education financing, helped Schmidt navigate the bureaucratic maze that sprang up around 9/11 philanthropy.

A surprising amount of it, she says, favored families from New York, leaving Marylanders picking through leftovers or else out in the cold.

The volunteers soon saw that funding from the Defense Department and federal contractors covered more than 40 of the children.

Much of the money they raised over the next three years came from noncorporate sources: schools, car dealerships, individuals.

Invested, it grew to provide about $12,000 per college year for the dozen children left uncovered.

Frishberg — who helped the families unearth other funding sources — says the sums covered all remaining expenses.

The outlays meant a ray of unexpected good news for several bereft Maryland families.

Joseph Maggitti, an insurance executive from Abingdon, was attending a quarterly meeting for his company on the 94th floor of the World Trade Center when the first plane hit.

He left behind his wife of 24 years, Pamela, and two children, Christopher, then 21, and Lauren, 14.

With help from the fund, both have graduated from college.

Todd Reuben of Potomac, a 40-year-old attorney, lost his life aboard Flight 77. His twin sons, Jason and Jeffrey, 11 at the time, graduated from college — and now live — in New York.

"[The fund] was definitely a help," their mother, Vivian Reuben, said this week.

Heidenberger feels likewise.

It was hard enough for Heidenberger, a veteran pilot with US Airways, to absorb and process what happened to Michele, his wife of 28 years, that morning.

As the senior flight attendant on Flight 77, she might have confronted the hijackers who took over the plane about 31 minutes after it left Dulles International Airport.

And it was hard enough to break the news to Alison, then 20 and beginning her senior year at Loyola, and Joseph II, 11, who was enrolled in the Washington school Michele had wanted him to attend.

Alison, he recalls, threw a cellphone against the wall. Joseph collapsed and hugged the family dog.

His role, he says, was less to shelter or protect them from the cataclysm than to "see that their transition from tragedy to a normal life was as easy and painless as possible."

"You know what a crazy world we live in, and you know what kind of person your mother was," he told them. "Maybe God needed her where he is. Let's make something positive out of this."

Heidenberger has. He was a force behind the creation of the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, which opened in 2008. He's happily remarried and an avid long-distance bicyclist.

He visits the memorial often. He always leaves a white rose for Michele.

Alison, 35, graduated from Loyola in 2002. She worked in commercial real estate for several years, married, and is a full-time mother of two.

Joseph, 26, graduated from the University of Scranton and entered the financial industry. Also married, he now works for Deutsche Bank in New York.

Schmidt is now chair of Chimes International, Ltd., a Baltimore-based nonprofit that provides educational and employment services for developmentally disabled individuals.

One of four people still operating the survivors' fund, he calls families like the Heidenbergers "American heroes."

He thinks about them every day, he says — ordinary people who never asked to become national figures, who faced a nightmare few can comprehend, yet whose efforts to thrive in the aftermath reflect what is best in the national character.

Heidenberger doesn't know about that. But he calls himself lucky.

He'll never get over 9/11, he says, but that doesn't mean it can't teach us something.

"It's my fervent hope that no other family has to go through what we did," he says. "Were it not for the prayers, support and kind words from so many people, I honestly don't think our family would be in the place we are today. And Doug and the fund are a prime example."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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