Unity amid heartache: Strength of community brought Pacificans together after 9/11 terrorist attacks 20 years ago

Pacific student holding hands

Photo courtesy The Record, Clifford Oto

University of the Pacific students gathered for a community discussion the afternoon of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Early in the morning on September 11, 2001, University of the Pacific President Donald DeRosa met with solemn cabinet members following 102 minutes that shook the world: the terrorist attacks on the United States.

Cabinet decided it was imperative to bring students together as soon as possible. Those students gathered in Faye Spanos Concert Hall, many holding hands, as they shared words of prayer, reflection, anger and resolve.

“That was a horrible day for everyone,” DeRosa recalled earlier this year in a virtual presentation. “We wanted to come together as a university to begin the process of healing.”

The al-Qaida terrorist group hijacked four U.S. airplanes and flew two of them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, another into the Pentagon and a fourth crashed into a rural field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Almost 3,000 people died in the attacks.

Tens of thousands of New Yorkers tried to escape buildings and fled into the streets to seek safety.

Cortlandt Smith, an esteemed Pacific professor of political science and native New Yorker, addressed the Faye Spanos Concert Hall gathering through immense personal pain.

“The people of New York are my people,” he said. “If I can have one prayer this afternoon it is that we will unify in ways that will make us pleasantly surprised about ourselves and how we come together.”

There was a seminal moment during Pacific’s initial response to the attacks that has stayed with DeRosa the past 20 years.

“I saw a group of Muslim students talking to one another,” DeRosa said. “They were trying to decide whether to have their meeting that night. I encouraged them to hold the meeting and said I would attend. As I spoke, I saw students who I knew were members of the Hillel Jewish Student Club. They told me, ‘We came to support our fellow students.’ That told me so much about Pacific.”

While the university increased security due to the uncertainty, an emphasis on faith, understanding and support also was prevalent. Morris Chapel remained open for those seeking a place to pray, as did Central United Methodist Church, across Pacific Avenue from the Stockton Campus.

“People will turn to faith from this and we will do that because the human being is so vulnerable and finite,” Larry Meredith, professor emeritus, said in an interview on the day of the attacks. “When our own arms fail we reach for everlasting arms. That is the story of crisis and religion.”

Coming together for students

Danny Hansen ’05, getting dressed for an early-morning class that fateful day, was shocked at the images on his television of jets hurtling into the World Trade Center. His first class after the attacks was international politics with Professor Susan Sample.

“Of all the classes to have that was in some ways very appropriate,” said Hansen, who works for an investment firm in Stockton. “Whatever was going to be going on in class that day was cancelled and it quickly became a passionate, class-wide discussion on what just happened.”

Allison Dumas, associate vice president for student involvement and equity, and an associate director in the Student Life at the time, was driving to work when she heard the news.

“This was a time when I especially appreciated the atmosphere of support that Pacific has,” Dumas said. “Everyone was reaching out trying to make sure that others were supported and felt heard. The students, of course, were our first priority. But for faculty, staff and students, everyone’s situation was different. We wanted our actions of support to be purposeful.”

Hansen said university-wide outreach made a difference.

“Here I was, a freshman only two or three weeks into my college experience, when this happened,” Hansen said. His wife, Sophia ’05, also graduated from Pacific. “People were hurting and many were unsure.”

Judy Chambers, who retired as vice president for student life at the end of the 2000-01 school year, remained on campus working for the Department of Advancement. Chambers said President DeRosa’s actions had a positive impact on the students.

“That was one of the vivid, difficult moments of his presidency. It was a national disaster that really effected everyone here,” she said. “He led the effort for what we needed to do to respond. It was a moment of coming together.”

The Pacifican responds

Amid heartache and uncertainty, one group of Pacific students had to immediately go to work: the staff of The Pacifican newspaper.

The attacks happened early on a Tuesday morning, the day The Pacifican went to press. Opinion page editor Jagdip Dhillon ’03 and news editor Chelsea Sime (now Lin) halted the planned issue and shifted gears to focus on the attacks.

“It happened so early in the day that we were able to send our reporters out to interview students, professors and others,” said Dhillon, who now works for Covered California in Sacramento. “Chelsea wrote the main story for our front page and I wrote the editorial, with input from all staff members. There were events on campus that we covered. And then we had to produce the pages and get ready to go to press.”

Lin and Pacifican photographer Lisa Menestrina (now Schultz) conducted interviews on campus and at the blood bank in Stockton, where students were making donations.

The Pacifican was in news racks the next morning.

“Going back to read the words you wrote as a 19-year-old for such an historic event can be a little strange,” said Lin, who studied for 2½ years at Pacific before finishing her degree at California State University, Chico. She works for an online publication in Seattle. “Mostly I remember it as being just a very sad day. Having something to do, like the newspaper, probably was a good thing.”

Tragedy hits close to home

The attacks claimed the lives of two people associated with the university.

Deora Bodley, 20, a junior student at Santa Clara University, was one of 45 people who died on United Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania. She was the daughter of Pacific Conservatory of Music professor Derrill Bodley.

She was on her way from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco after visiting friends on the East Coast.

“I can still see Derrill’s face to this day. He spoke at the second panel discussion we had,” said Brian Klunk, professor of political science. “He shared his feelings in a very heartfelt manner. Derrill then went on to help others who had faced loss in the attacks.” 

Derrill Bodley was a founding member of the support group September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. He wrote and often performed the original songs “Each to Give” and “Steps to Peace,” both of which focused on healing from tragedy.

He died in a motorcycle accident on his 60th birthday (Sept. 21, 2005).

Television commentator Barbara Olson, the wife of Pacific graduate and former United States solicitor general Theodore Olson, also died in the attacks. She was 45. She was a passenger on American Flight 77, which was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon.

Theodore Olson ’62 was appointed as solicitor general by President George W. Bush in 2001 (he served through 2004). He now is a partner in a Washington, D.C. law firm.

Teaching about Sept. 11

During the fall semester in 2001, Klunk taught a class that was the equivalent of today’s PACS general education courses. He also taught a course in international relations.

“My freshman class was a very engaging group, an honors section that had been very active in the classroom,” Klunk said. “But the day after the attacks, they were just numb.  Ultimately the attacks and what was happening around the world really took control of the content in both of those classes.”

Klunk said teaching to students who were not born when the attacks happened is now difficult.

“It is a challenge to convey the scope of what happened because it is not something they felt,” Klunk said.

Jennifer Helgren, professor and chair of the Department of History, was in graduate school at the time of the attacks. She teaches post-Civil War American history, which includes a lecture about the terrorist attacks.

“My lecture on the attacks focuses primarily on the day that they happened,” Helgren said. “We discuss President (George W.) Bush and the response and subsequent changes.”

In November 2002, Congress passed the Homeland Security Act, which overhauled the former Immigration and Naturalization Service and immigration policies under the new Department of Homeland Security.

“There were so many significant changes, including for immigration. For our current younger students, September 11 did shape political and social structures,” Helgren said. “The impact of that day stays with us.”