CHESHIRE ——There's a treasure in a nearly empty closet at the Cheshire Academy infirmary.
Debra Bond, the health center's director, uses a key to unlock the closet door. She's silent as her fingers gently touch a black gown draped from a hanger, academic regalia once worn by Bond's colleague at graduations and other school events.
There are public displays at the health center to remind people of Jennifer-Hawke Petit, a nurse and former center director, and her two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11 — all three murdered inside their Cheshire home on July 23, 2007. Petit family photos hang on walls and a colorful memorial garden stretches across the front of the Richmond Health Center.
But there are the less-visible reminders, too, that show just how difficult it has been for those close to Hawke-Petit to let go. Her cap and gown. Her laugh on never-erased voice mails. E-mails she wrote, saved in in-boxes.
Bond, 45, also a nurse, lost a colleague and a friend when Hawke-Petit, 48, was killed. Some mistook the blonde-haired women for sisters. They talked about their families, books they liked to read, shared their love of God. Together they ran the health center, giving medical care and advice to students — many of them boarders with family miles away.
Today, Bond continues that work, at times with a heavy heart. Seeing Petit's handwriting in a student's medical chart makes her wistful. An 8-by-10 photo of Petit and Bond hangs on a wall above the desk they used to share, the desk where they grew close, each picking up details of the other's life — in Hawke-Petit's case, details now often overshadowed by the horrible circumstances of her final moments alive.
Those moments and other aspects of the Petit slayings have been the subject of widespread media coverage of the death-penalty prosecutions of Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, the two longtime criminals charged in the case. And they are sure to be examined in graphic detail in Hayes' trial, scheduled to begin Monday, which makes remembering Hawke-Petit in life — not death — seem even more vital to people like and Bond and her colleagues at the school.
"She had an impact on many lives," Bond says. "The students and staff here were her extended family. That's why this loss has been so devastating for so many people. Jen was one of those people you wait a whole lifetime to meet."
Working Side By Side
Jennifer Lynn Hawke was born in Morristown, N.J, on Sept. 26, 1958. She went to grammar school and high school in western Pennsylvania. In 1980, after graduating from Sharon School of Nursing in Sharon, Pa., Hawke took a job at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, where she embraced a challenging role as a pediatric oncology nurse.
"She really loved that work," Bond says, recalling the hours the two would talk about the cancer patients they cared for, work they both did before their days at Cheshire Academy.
What made Hawke love it even more was the resident doctor who worked beside her in February 1981, Dr. William Petit Jr. The two talked for hours about their patients' diseases, their care and prognosis.
"Jen told me how brilliant he was," Bond says. "He was the smartest man she ever met. He was such a gifted physician and he had a wonderful bedside manner with his pediatric patients and their families."
Still, she didn't hesitate to let the resident doctor know when he needed improvement.
"Physicians think when they come out of medical school they know it all," Bond says with a laugh. "Well, Jen liked to tease Bill about how she had to teach him the right way to do blood pressure."
Eventually, Dr. Petit would ask Nurse Hawke out. It wasn't a typical first date. It came at a time when Petit's mother and father, William Petit Sr. and Barbara, traveled from Connecticut to visit their son in Pennsylvania. So Petit brought them along.
In 1982, Hawke — who loved the beach — moved to Florida to work at Sarasota Memorial Hospital and, a year later, to Rochester, N.Y., where she worked as a pediatric nurse at Strong Memorial Hospital.
On April 13, 1985, Hawke became Mrs. Petit during a ceremony at an historic church in Meadville, Pa. Hawke's father, Richard, a Methodist minister, performed the ceremony along with a chaplain the couple knew from the hospital in Rochester.
Three months later, after Petit was awarded an endocrinology fellowship at Yale University, the newlyweds moved to Connecticut. Hawke-Petit continued her career, too, becoming a nurse manager in the pediatric unit at Yale-New Haven Hospital.
On Oct. 15, 1989, the Petits' first child, Hayley Elizabeth, was born. She would later excel in school and athletics, and earn community service awards. Six years later, on Nov. 17, 1995, Michaela Rose was born. An athlete and a devoted community volunteer as well, Michaela was gifted in music, a trait she picked up from her mother. Hawke-Petit played piano and guitar. Bond says she also had a beautiful singing voice.
With two daughters to care for and a career she did not want to put on hold, Hawke-Petit took a job at Cheshire Academy, the school Hayley was attending. The position made the working-mom juggle a little easier.
A Great Listener
Bond says Hawke-Petit made the school and its students from more than two dozen countries part of her own family. Hawke-Petit would leave her home at 3 a.m. to care for a sick student. She would ease anxiety with her gentle voice. She also spoke frankly about teen-age sex and other tough subjects students were eager to discuss with an adult who was willing to listen.
Hawke-Petit had a no-nonsense, genuine way of reaching out to people. She listened, Bond says, but wasn't afraid to weigh in when she disagreed with the words or the cause.
"She was able to talk to anyone about anything to try and relieve their fears and their problems, whether it was teachers, staff or students," Bond says. "She always knew the right thing to say and was a great listener."
Sometimes, a student would just want her mother. "And Jen was there," Bond says.
A year before Hawke-Petit's death, Cheshire Academy students dedicated their yearbook to her. Bond says the book is usually dedicated to a faculty member.
The students wrote: "When you're feeling down or sick the best medicine is a caring smile and warm reassurances that everything will be all right. In other words, the person you would want to see is Mrs. Petit. While her husband William and their children are the center of her life, she always finds the time for her second family, Cheshire Academy. Mrs. Petit makes the dark moments bearable and the bright moments joyful."
That devotion never wavered even when Hawke-Petit was diagnosed in the mid 1990s with multiple sclerosis, a chronic degenerative disease of the central nervous system.
The disease left Hawke-Petit so exhausted she often would go to bed early. She looked to exercise for extra energy, walking or riding a stationary bicycle at a local gym when she could find the time. She tried to stem the progression of the disease with medicine she injected daily. The injections often left her body sore.
"She never complained about it," Bond recalls. "She only worried long term about being a burden. She was worried about Bill, about the girls. She was worried about what if things progressed and they had to take care of her."
Bond says Hawke-Petit was raising her daughters to be the type of people who would care for someone like their mother. She and her husband wanted the girls to have the intelligence to succeed in life and the sensitivity to want to make the world a better place.
Part of that was teaching the girls not to put too much value in material things, though they lived in upper middle class Cheshire. While Hawke-Petit was selective about the style and color of her clothing — she preferred bright colors — she shopped at the discount designer chain Marshalls.
"She didn't have a lot of fancy jewelry," Bond says. "She didn't wear it. She didn't want it. That was just her." One of her favorite pieces of jewelry was a necklace with a cross. Bond says Hawke-Petit was very upset the day she lost the necklace in the garage. She was delighted when Bill Petit bought her another one.
Bond says the Petit family did not take expensive vacations and went out to dinner only on special occasions.
"The money they saved went toward the girls' educations," Bond says.
Hayley was a high honors graduate of Miss Porter's School in Farmington and was accepted and admitted early to Dartmouth College. Michaela attended middle school at Chase Collegiate School in Waterbury.
Hayley, a gifted athlete, had won her high school's award for exceptional community service, founding "Hayley's Hope," a charity that raised thousands of dollars in support of multiple sclerosis research. Michaela planned to carry on the work of Hayley's charity once her big sister went to college, renaming it "Michaela's Miracle."
"She was so proud of her girls," Bond says. "Jen and Bill had the idea that you should do things for others ingrained in them."
Bond says she admired the relationship Hawke-Petit had with Hayley at a time in her life when many teen girls clash with their mothers.
"Jen's gift of being able to communicate so well with people really seemed to help her have a close relationship with Hayley. They used to talk about everything," Bond says.
Faith was an important part of Hawke-Petit's life, too, Bond says. At United Methodist Church in Cheshire, she taught Sunday school, sang in the choir and served on committees. Though Catholic, Bill Petit went to United Methodist with his family — and continues to go there today, Bond says. Bond found a home there, too. She joined after Hawke-Petit's death.
It's one of the ways Bond has stayed connected to her friend. What helps, too, is a walk along a garden at the health center filled with Shasta daisies, peonies, and climbing roses, created in remembrance of the Petits.
And on especially difficult days, Bond turns to a voice mail message Hawke-Petit left for her less than a week before the murders. At the time, the Petit family had just returned from vacation in Cape Cod. In it, Hawke-Petit laughs and jokes, her voice relaxed and carefree.
Says Bond, "I won't ever part with it."