In Memory of John

For Bill and Muriel Elliott, the legislative session is a chance to prevent others from experiencing a loss as profound as theirs.

January 31, 2002|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

There will not be enough time at the press conference to say everything Bill and Muriel Elliott would like to say about their 22-year-old son, John. There is never enough time, but this is how the system works, how a bill becomes law.

The press conference next month in Annapolis will last 15 minutes, half an hour at most. It will be held outside the Maryland State House, in an area known to locals as "lawyer's mall," but there will be no refreshments, no time to linger afterward. Lawmakers are busy, the General Assembly session lasts only 90 days, and "John's Law" is just one proposal in a sea of many.

Around the courtyard will be photographs, on banners and brochures, of Ensign John R. Elliott in his U. S. Naval Academy uniform, but no room for all the photos his parents have at their home in Somers Point, N.J., and on their Web site: John at his rainy high school graduation, on his birthdays, clowning with his buddies, as a boy in footed pajamas, as a baby in his mother's arms.

If there were time, Bill and Muriel would say it rained during parents' weekend of John's plebe summer, and at his formal ring dance his senior year. The rain became a joke in their family, and they weren't surprised it rained the night of his viewing, when 1,000 people waited for hours outside the funeral home to pay their respects.

If there were time at the press conference, Bill and Muriel could talk about how close John was to his sister, Jennifer; how the three years between them didn't prevent them from jogging the neighborhood together, swing dancing together, hanging out with the same set of friends. They could say John had made many friends at the neighborhood pool, loved growing up so close to the beach, won the sixth-grade spelling bee, switched the TV channel from the evening news to The Simpsons when his dad wasn't looking.

But there will be no time for all of that.

Every lawmaker knows a personal story goes a long way toward selling a bill to fellow lawmakers. Because it is personal, it has power - and appeal - but it is not the whole story. For the families behind bills, there is a deeper story that is never told. Not entirely.

All the time in the world would not be enough to capture John's 22 years, but this is something Bill and Muriel have come to accept. If their bill becomes law here and saves just one family from going through what they endured, they will be satisfied that as much - or as little - as they have shared will have made a difference.

At the press conference, Republican Del. David Boschert will read a statement. That's how these things usually work. He's the chief sponsor, and it is a legislator's responsibility to explain, in this case, how John's Law works and why it should be law in Maryland.

He may be flanked by others who have signed on in support: Democratic Delegates John Giannetti and William Bronrott and Democratic Sen. Ida Ruben, who cross-filed the bill to give it a stronger chance.

Someone will have to tell the reporters and politicians who gather what led to the law's passage in Jersey and what happened to John.

He graduated from the Naval Academy in May 2000 and was training plebes that summer. He got off late from work the night of July 21 and left Annapolis around 10, heading north on Interstate 95 with his girlfriend, Kristen Hohenwarter, in the passenger seat, bound for his boyhood home. He told his father he was bringing a new DVD of the movie Jaws. He told his mother he would be there for her 51st birthday the next day.

Bill and Muriel know everything that led up to that night: The Naval Academy was John's passion, and he had worked hard to get the good grades he would need to get in. He graduated fourth in the Egg Harbor Township High School Class of 1996.

Bill remembers John running across the lawn outside the hospital where he is vice president of marketing and fund raising the day the acceptance letter arrived, saying, "Dad, I did it. I made it." Muriel remembers how proud she was, how she spread the news at the elementary school where she teaches first grade. No one was more proud than Jenny, who would follow her brother south to attend the University of Maryland.

When the delegate mentions John's time at the academy, his family will remember how it began with a rocky start. Muriel mailed him chocolate chip cookies during the worst of it, and later, when he oversaw plebes, he had them write her a letter saying he was a model son.

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