'He was my best friend'

She gets asked to sign autographs (a new and slightly peculiar experience), but mostly they want to tell her what a great man her husband was. Sandra finds comfort in that. But some days it can be emotionally exhausting.

The hardest of all is to see John on television or film. The tears still come easily at moments like that. "It can still get very emotional," she says.

"He was my best friend. That's really hard to deal with," she says softly. "He's the one I would talk with right now to help deal what I've been through."

Still, friends say, Sandra has proved resilient. She's written more than 1,000 thank-you notes since her husband died. In public engagements, she's a warm and dynamic presence - whether at the podium or meeting guests in a crowd.

"She's gained a lot of self-confidence, much more than she ever thought she would have," says Richard Sammis, 62, of Timonium, a longtime family friend.

Koontz, 52, a former next-door neighbor in Baldwin, says continuing John's projects has helped her "feel his presence" in her life. And hearing from so many people who loved him has been a comfort, too.

"Sandy never does anything but a great job, whether it's throwing a dinner party or gardening, and this will be the same way, too," she says.

For now, Sandra has chosen to take it all one step at a time. Last month was the first Christmas without John. She and her children spent it together in Long Beach, Calif., with eldest son Joey, an aspiring actor, and his family.

Soon, she'll be filling in for John at a charity golf tournament in Florida. And then there will be board meetings for the Babe Ruth Museum, talking to businesses about the stadium project, and who knows where else she'll be needed to represent her late husband.

"It will take more than one person to fill his shoes, but I'm thankful to have the chance," she says. "It makes me feel a little bit closer to him."