Vicki Lowe was rushing to a school event Feb. 7 when she asked her neighbor to watch her 4-year-old. The neighbor, Ann Prothero, was happy to baby-sit.
"Ann was always willing to help out," said Lowe.
By the time Lowe arrived with her daughter, Ann Prothero was gone, escorted by several Baltimore County police officers to Sinai Hospital, where Bruce A. Prothero, her husband, lay dying. The 35-year-old Baltimore County police officer had been shot during a jewelry store robbery in Pikesville.
Lowe and others stayed with the Protheros' five children until their mother returned with the tragic news that Bruce Prothero had died.
Ever since, Carrolltowne neighbors have wrapped the Protheros in kindness, comforted them with continual favors and sheltered them from the curious, particularly the media who descended on this quiet subdivision of modest colonial homes in southern Carroll County.
"The neighbors have come out in force in every way," said Bruce Prothero's brother Rick. "You name it, and they have done it. They have mowed the grass, fixed things in the house, and they baby-sit the children like they are their own. Food is still coming to the door. Often it just appears there."
Lowe and several other neighbors placed fliers in mailboxes the day after Prothero died. They organized a fund drive to care for the family's most immediate needs. Within days, Carrolltowne Elementary, where Holly Prothero is in first grade, collected nearly $2,000.
Neighbors have fiercely guarded the family's privacy. Ann Prothero has made few public statements. But Friday at the annual Fallen Heroes Day service in Timonium honoring firefighters and police officers killed in the line of duty, she said that she and her husband "picked a good place to raise our family." As for her neighbors' kindnesses, she offered the simplest answer.
"I live amongst good people," she said. "They are there every minute that I need them. I don't even have to ask."
The memorial fund is substantial and one of several, but organizers won't release figures. The family has received innumerable gifts -- scrapbooks and memory boxes about their father made by the neighbors for each of the Prothero children.
'Do what we can'
Most important has been the support.
"We can't replace the extra set of hands or the hugs at bedtime," said Randy Holland, president of Carrolltowne Homeowners Association. "But we will continue to do what we can. We are not going anywhere. The crisis mentality will fade but the 'I'll come over' will never stop."
Few have "come over" empty-handed. Neighbors have set up a schedule, planning dinners at least 60 days in advance.
"We were overwhelmed with people who wanted to be on our dinner calendar," said Lowe.
They just as quickly scrapped the schedule, realizing a household with five children younger than age 6 should not be overloaded with fancy casseroles. But the offers have been continual.
That 30 neighbors attended the annual Fallen Heroes Day was no surprise to any of the Protheros. "They have become part of our family," said Rick Prothero.
Small kindnesses help
When Ann Prothero stood before the Fallen Heroes Memorial and gently touched her husband's name, her neighbor Carolyn Case was at her side. It was Case who pinned a corsage on her friend's dress before the service began.
"Ann's true comfort comes from small acts of kindness," said Lowe. "Material things were never important to her, and they are the least of the gifts she has received."
Rick Prothero, a physical therapist in Harford County, called the neighborhood unique. "It is like they are all family with kids who are similar ages. Everyone is on a first-name basis. There is a core around Ann, and they won't forget. They will remain friends."
For three months, Lowe and several others have been writing thank-you notes on behalf of their friend "to spare her the burden of writing to hundreds," she said.
One note went to Liberty High students who work at a preschool program that the Prothero's 5-year-old triplets, Parker, Andrew and Kimberly, attend. They had filled bags with crayons, books and markers to keep the children and their 2-year-old sister, Hannah, entertained soon after their father died.
Holland said the response is fitting. He wrote a tribute to Bruce Prothero in the Carrolltowne newsletter. It called on all to "rededicate ourselves to the principle by which Bruce lived: Family comes first."
It went on: "I will always have memories of Bruce in his front yard, cavorting with his children and mine and everyone else's; just another big kid seemingly without a care in the world. Most of all, I will keep with me memories of our last moments together. It was this past New Years Eve, at a neighborhood party, as Bruce tried in vain to wake up one of the triplets who had fallen asleep just seconds before the dawning of the new millennium. We laughed together one last time, and then waved good-bye shortly thereafter. He made three trips between the party and home, carrying his sleeping brood to their warm, cozy beds."
As the neighbors left the service Friday, many lingered at Bruce Prothero's grave. A marker there reads "alive in our hearts forever."