Stevenson students make good on professor's dream

May 20, 2011

Life, indeed, goes on. Maybe not the way you planned it. Or the way you wished it would go. Or even with you along for the ride.

Susan Slattery had no way of knowing last summer that the project she planned for the freshman class at Stevenson University would have to be carried out by others. That the rehabilitation of her two sons would become a family and community effort. That strangers would give up their vacations — a year's worth — to ensure that her husband could be by the bedside of her youngest boy every waking moment as he relearned the simple things, like pointing his index finger and smiling.

But all of those things happened, and more, because even though Susan Slattery's life ended on an Ohio highway last summer, people refused to let her life's work end.

That's why on Wednesday, students, faculty, family and friends boarded a boat in the Inner Harbor for a two-hour trip to a spot on the Chesapeake Bay where a small flotilla waited. There, a workboat from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation lowered 30 reef balls over the side to create habitat for fish and shellfish.

Horns blasted and people took pictures and hugged. There were tears and laughter.

Susan, everyone agreed, would have cheered the loudest.

"Absolutely," said her mother, Ginger Palmer. "This whole thing is about teaching and learning."

Slattery, a math professor, was curriculum coordinator last year for Stevenson's incoming class. She decided that building reef balls would give the freshmen a chance to get to know each other while learning about the environment and public service.

But on Aug. 16, just days before the start of the school year, Slattery and her two sons, Peter, 16, and Matthew, 12, were on their way home to Hunt Valley from an Ohio vacation when they were rear-ended on I-90 by a semi pulling three trailers. Their Ford Focus, barely moving, was no match for the speeding truck, which also plowed into two trucks and three more passenger vehicles before coming to a stop against the divider and catching fire. Police said the driver had fallen asleep.

Matthew, in the front seat, suffered massive brain damage. Peter's pelvis was broken in three places. Susan Slattery, 47, was killed instantly.

At the funeral, Stevenson officials hesitantly approached Ed Slattery, Susan's husband, with an idea.

"By the way, we're going to make concrete reef balls and dump them in the bay and dedicate them to Susan. What do you think about that?" Susan Gorman, dean of the School of Sciences, recalled asking. "I should have known, being Susan's family, they would say, 'That's the best idea.' And they did."

On a bright, crisp day last October, the freshmen mixed and poured cement under the supervision of the czars of bay reef balls: Eagle Scout and Stevenson senior Chris Edler and Bill Huppert of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association. Then they waited for spring.

Wednesday was anything but bright and crisp. Rain lashed the windows of the sightseeing vessel Inner Harbor Spirit as it headed north toward Hart-Miller Island and thunder rumbled.

Ed Slattery talked about his wife's dedication and what life has been like without her. Susan Slattery ran robotics competitions and math and science summer camps. She collaborated with the Living Classrooms Foundation on a program for middle school students.

"She was very committed to doing whatever it took to get math and science into kids' heads and hands," he said. "This is perfectly fitting."

Peter is getting around fine, although he still has pain when he walks. Matthew, who once tested at the top of his class in the subjects his mother adored, "is never going to be himself," his father said. "The language center on the left side of his brain is dead and he has to be retrained. He doesn't remember how to form vowels and consonants. He's starting over."

But there are moments of triumph. Since February, he has learned to move his hand and copy letters. He can touch his nose, give a thumbs up and a high five. And a week ago, Matthew found his voice again.

"Matthew's only had one bad day in his life and that was the day of the accident," Ed Slattery said. "Matthew was a happy kid and he still is."

On the pinky finger of his left hand, Ed Slattery wears a ring identical to his own wedding band.

"It was Susan's," he said quietly. "It just feels right."

As the boat slowed at a spot near the Memorial Stadium reef, the rain stopped. The sun peeked out for a brief moment. People grew quiet as the first of the reef balls were lowered in place.

Matthew grinned. His dad gave him a hug. Ginger Palmer wiped away a tear.

"It's good for the bay, it's a fitting tribute to Susan and it's something I can bring the boys to for the rest of their lives," said Ed Slattery.

Gorman said the school will add to the reef each year. In addition, four loaner kits with instruction manuals have been developed by Stevenson to help other schools and groups get in on the action.

"There's still a lot of real estate down there to capitalize on," said Gorman.

Edler, who graduated earlier this month with a biology degree and hopes to work for the Department of Natural Resources or another environmental agency someday, said he will continue working on Stevenson's reef ball project as a tribute to Slattery.

"I never got to have her for class," he said, "but I feel like I worked with her today."

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