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WW-P's Suarez enjoyed learning through living
By CHRIS EDWARDS
"For those who have faith, no explanation is necessary. For those who don't, no explanation is possible."
- West Windsor-Plainsboro High South wrestling coach Keith MacDougall, remembering 1994-95 Pirates wrestling captain David Suarez
WEST WINDSOR -- On the morning of Sept. 11, a solitary, 8 1/2-by-11-inch white paper invoice wafted down from the 99th floor of World Trade Center Tower One to the corner of Manhattan's Wall and Pearl streets, in the heart of New York City's financial district.
It landed, as if by divine intervention, in the path of Ted Suarez.
"It's one of those things, when you read or hear about it, you don't believe it because you think somebody made it up," Ted said, cradling the ash-coated sheet with a paternal longing only he and his wife Carol can fully comprehend.
"I think it highlights how, in the midst of a terrible, terrible disaster, the power of love and the power of God prevailed."
In so many ways, the paper doubled as a pre-Christmas miracle.
Suarez's 24-year-old son, David, a captain of the 1994-95 West Windsor-Plainsboro High wrestling team, was working on a software conversion project for Deloitte Consulting. He was based on the 99th floor of Tower One. Ted, who is employed by the Wall Street firm A.I.G. (located four blocks southeast of the World Trade Center), shuddered as both airplane impacts shook his nearby office with earthquake-type force.
"There isn't a moment that I don't think about it," Ted said last Friday, just over 100 days after David passed away.
At almost the precise hour Ted and David were scheduled to meet for a noontime lunch (David, a 1999 industrial engineering major at Penn State University, was always on time), Ted unknowingly bent over and retrieved a final link to his son.
"I tell everybody this," Ted said, the Christmas tree in the Suarez family living room forming a poignant background for his recollection, "and I'm not going to stop telling it. When I walked out on the street, there was this piece of paper. It was face down. I picked it up and put it in my briefcase. It had a footprint on it . . . you can see it. It was one of the millions of pieces of paper that came down."
Ironically, he didn't immediately look at the paper's reverse side.
As the Suarez family searched frantically for information about David, who had misplaced his wallet and discontinued his cellular phone service just prior to the terrorist attacks, Ted temporarily forgot the piece of paper. On the evening of Sept. 12, with David's status still uncertain, he finally glanced at the other side of the sheet.
There, as a single-line item dated July 19, 2001, was a corporate billing charge for just over $348,000. Overcome with emotion, he shared his chilling discovery with Carol, a seventh grade teacher at West Windsor's Grover Middle School.
"That's David account," she realized almost immediately.
"I broke down. I just couldn't believe it," Ted said, adding that he was too overwhelmed to talk about his revelation for weeks following the initial shock. "For me to pick up this piece of paper. . . . The buildings had already collapsed, and the whole 50-block radius was covered. This just blows me away."
It certainly wasn't the first time David Suarez had impacted the lives of family, friends and co-workers in a unique way.
Nor will it be the last.
At 1 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 5, during a West Windsor-Plainsboro South wrestling ceremony, the Pirates will dedicate their 2001-02 season to David's memory. They will also unveil an award plaque which will hang permanently in the school's gymnasium lobby.
The presentation will be another in a heartfelt series of tributes involving Ted, Carol, and their other two children, Bryan, 28 (also a former WW-P wrestler), and Kristen, 22 (a former WW-P field hockey player).
"It's hard. We've gone from being private people to . . .," Carol added, leaving the thought dangling for a moment. "But it's not just our story. It's everybody's story."
-- -- --
After completing his varsity-wrestling career as a member of the 1994-95 WW-P team that posted an 11-0 Colonial Valley Conference dual-meet record and won the Mercer County Tournament, David frequently returned to the Pirates' wrestling room.
He was the 1995 Mercer County Tournament 136-pound champion and a 1995 NJSIAA District 17 runner-up. His athletic credentials were impressive (41 wins, including 20 by pin). His loyalty to the WW-P program was unwavering.
"It was always about going back home for him, but part of that home, an extension, was this wrestling team," said current WW-P South coach Keith MacDougall, who was an assistant to head coach Paul Glass during the 1994-95 season.
"That was something that started way back when," said Glass, now an assistant at WW-P North. "The room opened at 8:30 a.m., and practice was from nine to 11. It was always a treat for us to have them (alums) come back."
Most of the alumni visits took place during the Christmas break. It became a tradition to be back on the mat with the younger guys, sharing inside-the-program stories. Last Thursday, six former WW-P wrestlers showed up at Pirates practice. Several had not heard of David's passing.
"There's still a gray area that envelopes those who don't know, and those who don't know how to rationalize it," MacDougall said.
"They were a cohesive group, and they enjoyed each other's company," said Carol, referring to David's high school teammates, two of whom were fellow captains James Malone and Ken Gluck. "He was very proud of (being captain), but it's not something that he would tell you unless you asked him. He took it very seriously just to be there, and be a motivator.
"Wrestling was the driving sport for him. He did all the other things to keep in conditioning for wrestling. I guess you compete against yourself. He was very disciplined. If he wanted something, he just did it. He planned for it. He's not one to do it the night before."
David started wrestling in the seventh grade, shortly after his family relocated from Connecticut. The sport's grueling appeal was encapsulated in a college essay he wrote about mountain climbing:
"My legs burned. My heart pounded," David explained in a piece entitled, "Return To Freedom." The essay was an account of a Boy Scout trip to New Mexico where, as a 130-pound high school sophomore, he scaled 11,711-foot Mount Philmont in full gear. Like his life, his writing was concise, expressive and ambitious.
According to his parents, scouting was another extension of David's inquisitive, well-rounded personality. Not surprisingly, he attained the organization's highest rank, Eagle Scout. At his Sept. 22 memorial service, the color guard was composed of 10 other Eagle Scouts from his troop.
"He would see an opportunity and seize upon it," Ted said. "When he died, we found in his apartment that he had laid out his whole interview schedule (even into December)." One of the entries was a visit to "Kristen and Bry," his treasured siblings.
"We did a lot of family vacations," Carol said. "He hiked with his brother and went camping. The kids are really close. That's the one thing I'm very proud of."
David also had a vulnerable side. According to Carol, "He was very forgetful. He was always losing his wallet (the one he misplaced just before the attack was mailed to the family's West Windsor residence by a good samaritan, postmarked Sept. 10) and his keys.
On Sept. 11, David entered the World Trade Center wearing a temporary identification badge. In the wake of the tragedy, the Suarezes got the badge back. Like the account voucher and David's Christmas stocking (which hangs above their family-room fireplace), it has become a small but significant piece of remembrance.
Partly as an outgrowth of David's strong upbringing, MacDougall "bonded almost instantaneously" with the budding student-athlete.
"It wasn't a friendship bond. It was more of a morality bond," MacDougall said. "I told him, `I haven't met your parents, but I feel like I met them through you.' I said, `You are what I want my son to be like.' "
Glass headed the WW-P program for 18 years, until the school was split into two campuses two years ago. He remembers the time David was sent to the training room with a dislocated finger "that was pointed sideways. A few minutes later, he came back upstairs and said, `Oh, I'm fine.' "
As Glass spoke, the memories intensified. Analyzing David's special gift for caring, he added, "He'd beat kids, and he'd look almost embarrassed because he was so modest."
-- -- --
Although David was accepted by Cornell University and the University of Virginia, he chose Penn State, both for the excellence of its industrial engineering program and the bucolic beauty of its campus.
"That was the school David really loved," Carol said. "I have to say, he had a really good education. They challenged his brain, and he needed that."
To stay in shape, he ran (often in his white WW-P wrestling jacket), and took long bike rides through the central Pennsylvania countryside. Added Carol, "That became a part of him every day. Even the morning he died, he was out running. His roommates (Brian and Michael) said all his sweaty clothes were still there."
A member of the Kappa Alpha fraternity (which has established two scholarships in his honor), David spent a portion of his junior year interning with IBM in North Carolina's prestigious "Research Triangle." He joined Deloitte Consulting in August 1999 and, by Sept. 11, 2001, had been working on the Marsh & McLennan account for nine months.
"He felt that Deloitte had a special spirit," Ted said. "They went out of their way to create a special environment where you got to know people as people."
On Sept. 6, David helped organize a company outing to the U.S. Open tennis tournament. Ted proudly showed the torn ticket stub from that event while Carol joked that David's colleagues said he wanted to know, "Who's Billie Jean King?"
Before he passed away, David had been accepted into Deloitte's graduate school reimbursement program. He had legitimate hopes of earning an MBA from Harvard University. After scoring in the 96th percentile on the graduate entrance examination, he was eager to make a strong impact on several other admissions departments, too.
"He was going in to work early, fine-tuning those applications and reviewing them," Carol said. "It was like going down memory lane, because he had questions that had to be answered. He'd ask me, `What's something that I've overcome in my life?' You know, those very hard questions. People at work actually have different drafts of his applications."
David also left behind an unsung spirit of volunteerism. His work for the charity organization "New York Cares" was a source of pride. Over the last three months, Carol and Ted Suarez have learned a great deal more about their son's private brand of benevolence.
"We knew he left here to go work at the soup kitchen," Carol said. "Then we got an e-mail that said, `Did you know he was also reading to the little kids?' He came in one weekend and said he needed all the old SAT books because he was tutoring. They couldn't afford those classes."
Added Ted in a reverent tone, "He was excited about learning. Learning didn't mean just books. It meant life. David was a highly principled person. His favorite movie was `Braveheart.' He just watched it continuously."
-- -- --
The giant American flag draped over the front door of the Suarez home is a symbol of the strength that lies within. They are far from isolated in their grief. Their next-door neighbor, 45-year-old John J. Ryan, a vice president at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, also perished during the World Trade Center attacks.
On Dec. 11, the three-month anniversary of the attacks, Ted and Carol Suarez delivered a speech at their nearby church, West Windsor's Saint David The King. In addition to the miracle leaflet Ted plucked from a Manhattan street, it focused on several powerful themes.
"I enjoy our friends, our family and our faith," Carol said. "That's really kept us going. That's what's been the focus. We also have two other children, and they're a good enough reason to keep going."
Several days after the World Trade Center collapses, Kristen visited Plainsboro's Community Middle School. She was looking for Paul Glass, who had been one of her field hockey coaches.
"I was handing out locks for the lockers, and the kids were trying out their combinations," Glass recalled. "I was very busy. She was there for a while, like 15 minutes. I was babbling on about hockey season, and she said, `What I really came to tell you was about Dave and the World Trade Center.'
"I had no idea. I felt foolish. I just didn't know what to say, so I gave her a hug and told her, `There's nothing to say except, I'm sorry.' "
Carol Suarez knows that her son genuinely loved New York City and its attendant pageantry. During late August, David used a digital camera to snap a late-afternoon photograph of Manhattan. The Empire State building is almost perfectly centered in the frame. The picture, which later was found in his apartment, was taken from one of the upper floors of the World Trade Center.
"He loved to play with that camera," Carol said.
Five days a week, Ted Suarez heads to work in the same neighborhood where his son's life was taken.
"The first eight weeks, when you could really smell the burning, that was a constant reminder," Ted confessed. "I guess, like anything, you learn to live with it."
It doesn't make David's absence any easier to accept.
"It's in front of you all the time," Carol said. "You turn on the news, and you're seeing over and over how your child died. But he's not the only one. There are 3,000 other people. You can't predict. You just do the best you can."
All the while remembering the unmistakable sign of faith that Ted Suarez discovered in a cavern of sorrow.
Donations in David Suarez's memory may be made to The Dave Suarez Scholarship Fund, c/o The KAO Educational Foundation, P.O. Box 1865, Lexington, VA 24450.