Once in a Lifetime

By Kitch & Tony Mussari
Copyright 2011
Mussari-Loftus Associates
The Face of America Project

“You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.” John Wooden

A Perfect Day 

Some days are better than others, Tuesday, December 6, was one of the best days of my life. It began with a screening of our documentary, Shanksville, PA: A Place of Transformation, for an auditorium filled with attentive and enthusiastic high school students in North Plainfield, New Jersey.  It continued when Kitch and I had dinner with Vicki and Daniel Perez, the parents of 2LT Emily Perez. It ended with a community screening and several pleasant surprises.

It was a day of affirmation, enthusiasm, flexibility, loyalty, service and teamwork. These are values Kitch and I celebrated and taught for many years. We believe they are the foundation of personal leadership and community service.  On this day, Kitch and I experienced the healing warmth of these words in real and personal ways.

The day began early in the morning, I was traveling solo. Kitch needed time to rest. She was approaching the first anniversary of her battle with breast cancer. Her recovery was coming along nicely, but her body was still recovering from the effects of chemotherapy and radiation. She needed time to slow down and rest. We had been on the road for three days, and she wanted to have the energy she would need for what we both knew would be a long and emotional night.

In my rush to get to the high school, I managed to forget one of the essential elements for my presentation, my “Miracle Shirt.” Given to me by my last class, I wanted to wear it during the morning assembly as I had done the day before to connect with the students and honor their participation in the event.

When I realized I had forgotten the shirt, I was disappointed and frustrated. It did not take but a few minutes to find a volunteer who was willing to make the trip the Hampton Inn in South Plainfield, to get the shirt and rescue the moment.

It may seem like a small thing, but, in my mind, it was a huge and thoughtful gift of friendship. I will always be grateful to Skip Pulcrano who literally saved the day.

The screening was flawless. The students were respectful, responsive and very enthusiastic. I got the impression they wanted to be there.  They wanted to celebrate the moment, the memory and the meaning of what they were seeing hearing and learning. I enjoyed every minute I spent with them.

It never ceases to amaze me how welcoming the North Plainfield students are. They love their school. They are impressive ambassadors for the power and promise of diversity.  On this Tuesday morning, they made their parents and their teachers proud, and they made me feel like I belonged.

As I looked out at the audience, it was clear to me that something special is happening in North Plainfield. It was also clear that I was looking into the face and the future of America’s tomorrow. These students do not have a sense of entitlement. Many of them know how difficult life can be.  They do not lament.  They do not complain. They make the most of what they have. They are earnest, genuine, full of energy, hope, kindness and optimism.  They want to make a better life for themselves. They care about people who are hurting.  

In 2010, the students in this high school participated in a fundraising event they called "Canuckapalooza."  They raised $17,000 for items to send to our troops in Iraq. This year the students raised $16,000 for the American Cancer Society.

That same spirit of caring was central to a conversation I had with a student before I left the auditorium.

After the assembly ended, a student made her way to the front of the room where a small group of students had gathered to offer feedback. I caught a glimpse of this young woman out of the corner of my eye.  She seemed to be waiting for a private moment. When the opportunity presented itself, she stepped forward. She offered kind words about the screening, and she expressed concern about Kitch. Then, she shared a poignant story about cancer and how it had affected her life. She showed me a tattoo on her wrist that spoke to her pain.  At the end of her story, tears filled her eyes when she said, “I know how hard cancer can be, and I want you to know that your wife will be in my prayers.”

I don’t know her name. I did not get her e-mail address, but I will never forget her face and the sincerity of her comments.  In my opinion, she is a face of North Plainfield High School at its very best.

Dinner with Friends

"Who finds a faithful friend, finds a treasure." Jewish Saying

By every measure Vicki and Daniel Perez are a treasure to everyone who knows them. Kitch and I came late to the banquet that is their life, but we are grateful for every moment we have spent with them during the past two years.

Vicki and Daniel gave America and West Point the gift of their daughter Emily. Her death in Iraq one year after she graduated from West Point changed their life in ways they never thought possible.  It turned their life upside down, and it filled their hearts with unimaginable emptiness. By everyone’s measure, Emily Perez personified all of the virtues the ancients associated with greatness: generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness.

Filled with grief, they refused to give up and give in, they refused to lay blame, and they refused to be consumed with anger. On the contrary, they did something that would keep Emily’s Legacy alive and help young women realize their dream.  They founded Emily’s Way, The Emily J. T. Perez Foundation. The centerpiece of the foundation is a mentoring program for young women in the Washington D.C. area.

Because of their work to keep Emily’s memory alive, Kitch and I have become fast friends with Daniel and Vicki.

On this day they drove to North Plainfield to share this special moment in our life. During dinner we talked about their work, their family and some of the challenges they face.

Daniel was recently diagnosed with Diabetes. He and Kitch shared several ways to use diet to help manage sugar levels. Kitch and Vicki have a common interest in the book and the movie “The Help.” Vickie was born and raised in Texas. For her and the members of her family, the stories in the book are real life experiences.

Daniel and Vickie are people of faith. Not a proselytizing, in-your-face, I am better than you are kind of faith.  Theirs is a gentile, loving, sharing faith that permeates everything they do and everything they are. They are people whose actions speak louder than words. They are filled with the spirit of loving kindness. When you are with them, you learn, you grow, and you become a better person because of their peaceful spirit and positive example.

You can feel their pain, and you are inspired by their courage, compassion and commitment.

Their visit to North Plainfield provided Kitch and me with an opportunity to say thank you for their gift of friendship.

Eight words on a card we received from our friend Carol Matinas best describe the nature of our friendship with Vicki and Daniel Perez:

“Friendship is a promise made in the heart.”

Thank you, Vicki and Daniel for helping us tell Emily’s Story.

Thank you North Plainfield for helping us tell the Shanksville story.

(In Part 5, we will continue the story of our perfect day in North Plainfield.)

Tony & Kitch Mussari
The Face of America Project
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