Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13
This page started as a blog post on January 3rd, but I believe our visit with Bob and Peggy Hunt in December, 2013 warrants a page unto itself. The visit serves as a culmination of a remarkable year, and as the start of a new chapter in a story over 25 years in the making.
With ashen faces and grave eyes, Robyn, Peggy, and Robert Hunt stared out of the oversize photo on the Democrat and Chronicle‘s editorial page. Above the photo, a headline set in heavy, bold type asked “Why Can’t the Government Tell Us Who Killed my Daughter.” There was no artifice or rhetorical flourish in the introduction which began in the most direct way possible: “My daughter was murdered.”
I’d seen the evidence of this first hand after visiting Karen Hunt’s grave several times, most recently in March, a month before Robert Hunt’s letter appeared in the paper on Easter Sunday. I’d written a poem next to their daughter’s grave that mirrored many of the family’s frustrations. A year earlier, I’d visited her grave with very different intentions.
In what was supposed to be an act of closure, I first visited Webster Union Cemetery on April 21, 1989, four months to the minute after a bomb hidden in a suitcase opened Pan Am 103’s hull to the winds. The visit, motivated by months of nightmares, sleepless nights, and a grating sense of powerlessness, was supposed to mark the end of this stranger’s presence in my life.
Instead, something dramatically indefinable happened on day. I left the cemetery with a sense that somehow, in some way, I’d been caught up in something at once sad and tragic yet moving and touching as well. I felt that I was no longer a witness to the story; incomprehensibly, it was transforming me, and drawing me in. It was as if part of it left with me. The experience motivated me to use poetry as a means to channel my frustration and grief.
The Hunts’ letter appeared less a month after I’d written the poem. My emotions were still as raw as the unpolished lines of the verse, but after over a year of internal debate and indecision, I felt compelled to send the poem to them with a brief note of support.
It was graphic and angry, marred by my inexperience, the product of my youthful idealism. If I’d been more circumspect, I never would have sent it, but it was in the mail the next day. Perhaps smugly, I noted in my journal that I had finally sent a poem to the family of the one who had inspired my creative voice.
Years passed. The tragedy of Pan Am 103 receded into memory, and with it, the poem mailed to the Hunts the Monday after Easter in 1990.
Decades later, I watched with mixed emotions as Karen grew to adulthood before my eyes as the beautiful melody of Richard Newbegin’s “Song for Karen” played in the background. Newbegin—what a perfect name for the author of the song that called me back to a powerful legacy. It was a new beginning, rooted in a tragedy nearly a quarter of a century old. The memories of 1988 came back with a new force and a wealth of new material. Amid the documents and photographs was the poem I had written to the Hunts in April, 1990, now flung 23 years into the future like a reminder of how interconnected the elements of this story were—and of how, in some small way, I had become a part of it. It was an invitation to reopen a door, partially shut by time, to a moving story that seemed as alive now as it had been decades ago.
I’d created a website for Karen in August. I planned on concluding the chapters of the site with a photographic essay of my first visit to her grave in nearly 2 decades, but given past experience, I already wondered if the trip would truly be the end.
The visit was indeed powerful—for the second time, a visit to Karen’s grave acted as a springboard into a new chapter of Karen’s story—and my own. History repeated itself, though the consequences would play out quite differently in 2013.
Two months after I sat next to Karen’s grave on that warm, damp day in August, I stood behind the parents and relatives of the 35 Syracuse University students as Remembrance Scholars paid tribute to those lost on Pan Am Flight 103. Robert Hunt, the father of the young woman who had somehow changed my life in 1988, was among them. As I looked at the crowd of onlookers, the clusters of journalists, the seated parents, and, finally, the names etched in granite on the wall, it quickly dawned on me that Karen was changing my life a second time—nearly 25 years after her death.
The memorial service, in concert with several moving letters shared by the Hunts through the archives, finally gave me a stronger sense of who Karen was and what her death and more importantly, her life, meant to me. It precipitated the first of several major revisions to the site as I chose to focus more attention on Karen’s life story.
As the project grew and changed, I mulled over the possibility of contacting Karen’s parents. I’d seen Robert, her father, at the commemoration in Syracuse, but I had a wedding to photograph in Wheeling the next day which made it impossible for me to stay for the convocation. What would I have said anyway? It took me over a year to contact them the first time, and that was in response to a letter that seemed to perfectly mirror the sentiments of a recently written poem. That poem, sent with a letter to a widely published home address, was but one of many messages of support the family received in the days and weeks following Robert Hunt’s Op-Ed piece in the Democrat & Chronicle.
I was caught in a bind. Though the material I’d posted about Karen was drawn from publicly available sources, the fact remained that I was, in a sense, starting to speak for Karen. The family should have a right to vet the material I’d posted to date.
On the other hand, would an unsolicited message reopen old wounds? The project existed in large part as a tribute to their daughter; the thought that I might inadvertently hurt or offend them weighed heavily on me. I feared that had already happened when I finally unearthed a copy of the poem in May; they’d shared it with Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, but what would happen if I wrote to them now, nearly 25 years after the bombing? Anything I sent to them now would be like a bolt out of the blue.
As November wore on, I resolved that I would never contact them. They’d already experienced horrors beyond anything I could imagine; the last thing I wished to do was to open wounds.
Yet questions continued to plague me—why would they have shared so much material about Karen if they weren’t willing to talk about her? Was it right for me to post so much information about Karen without consulting her family first?
I finally had a chance to see Bob and Peggy when I had a chance to view Terror and Tears, a documentary released by a Syracuse Cable station on the 20th anniversary of the Lockerbie Air Disaster. Both seemed kind, approachable, and warm, even in light of the program’s tragic subject matter. This was the tipping point.
After weeks of internal debate, I composed the letter on a Friday afternoon early in December. I fought the inclination to send it all the way to the post office, but the letter, together with a photo of a rose and a DVD of images from Remembrance Week, went off that afternoon.
The only thing left to do was to wait for a response—provided that I had sent the envelope to the right address.
We’d visited Webster twice that week, but the last time I took this particular route was in August, when I’d visited Karen’s grave on a warm, rainy afternoon in August. I’d gladly take that summer day over the upstate winter’s chill. Thoughts like that distracted me from the building nervousness as we drove through the snow-frosted village of Webster. We were early, though not early enough to stop by Webster Union Cemetery for a brief visit to Karen’s grave. Such visits were too meaningful and rare to rush.
I could only imagine the expression on my face the previous week when an email bearing a familiar name appeared in my inbox. Traci knew something was up immediately. Bob and Peggy replied to the letter last, and their response included an invitation for coffee. Never in my wildest thoughts could I have imagined meeting Karen’s family. Visiting the Hunts would cap off a trip that would bring us to Syracuse for the 25th anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am 103, then to Honeoye and Webster to visit my parents and sisters for the holidays. It would be the culmination of a remarkable 7 months.
A last minute change of plans meant that we would have to delay a lengthy visit. Though I felt a pang of disappointment at the news, the call gave me a chance to talk briefly to Robert Hunt, whose friendly, gregarious demeanor set me at ease. The delay was unavoidable, and after a wait of 25 years, a few more months simply wouldn’t matter. This was going to happen one way or another. I was going to meet Peggy and Robert Hunt.
It was almost surreal. Many things about this experience seemed surreal. It was dizzying to follow the vast and complex web of causation that led us to be here, driving through Karen’s hometown toward a rendezvous with her family. The motion of the car and the changing landscape reminded me that this was very real—and a little unnerving as well. It was one thing to be comfortable in front of 25 students in a classroom, but this was different.
Our visit would be brief. Traci had made a few things for Bob, Peggy, and Robyn, and we picked up a few other gifts. Both of us anticipated a short conversation, after which we’d leave the packages and begin the 5 hour drive back to Pittsburgh.
I drove as slowly as I could along the back roads to their development, but we arrived early. I parked the car for a few moments near a large snowdrift in the cul-de-sac to collect my nerves. That did nothing, so we pulled up to the Hunts’ house.
My nervousness and excitement built as we approached the front door.
Peggy Hunt opened the door. Her eyes reflected sincere kindness—it was reminiscent of the kindness I once saw in the eyes of a young woman on a television screen 25 years ago. The connection was unmistakable, the effect immediate. The excitement remained, but the nervousness instantly faded away. She invited us in for a few minutes.
Still a bit sore from a recent operation, Robert Hunt greeted us in the hallway before retreating to more comfortable quarters. Traci and I exchanged looks—we both felt guilty for imposing on them. Our plan was to leave as soon as possible.
Peggy invited us into the beautiful kitchen for coffee, tea, cookies, and conversation. It was quickly evident that she and I were anxious to talk about Karen, the website, and the remarkable string of coincidences that led to this meeting.
Eight months ago, Lockerbie was a powerful but dormant part of my past. Seven months ago those memories woke anew from their long hibernation. Two months ago, I placed my hand on Karen’s name in the Place of Remembrance. Less than a week ago, we were in Hendricks Chapel commemorating the 25th anniversary of the loss of those aboard Pan Am 103. At that moment, Traci and I were having coffee with Karen Hunt’s mother. It still hadn’t quite registered yet.
I’d studied Pan Am 103 for years, read accounts of family members, researched official documents, and perused a number of books. I’d committed newspaper accounts of the bombing and its aftermath to memory in the days and weeks following the bombing. I knew so much about this family, about their strength, their courage, and their sadness. None of this information could compare with the experience of looking into the eyes of someone who wanted to share the story of the life of a beautiful person. Something told me this visit was going to be special.
The conversation began in earnest when Peggy asked me to tell my story from the beginning, and I shared my tale with her beginning with the night of December 21, 1988, the night I saw Karen’s image on the television. I told her about my outburst 2 days after the tragedy, my experience at Karen’s grave in 1989, the events that led up to my sending the poem, and my experiences and discoveries in the ensuing years. Both of us could see similarities between my experiences and Richard Newbegin’s, though there were clearly many differences as well. Gradually, the conversation shifted to a discussion about Karen and Robyn. Every once in a while, I caught a striking change in demeanor, something I couldn’t quite describe, except to say that Peggy Hunt’s face seemed to glow when she talked about her daughters.
I’d never encountered a love so pure, so intense. It was a connection that transcends death itself. It was spiritual.
Peggy left for a moment, then returned with a box full of letters and photographs, a few of which I’d seen in the archives. I had the chance to read one of her roommate’s letters aloud—it was another powerful moment. Given the chance, I could spend hours sifting through the content of this folder alone, and it was but one of many.
We also spent a fair amount of time pondering the remarkable series of coincidences we’d witnessed over the past two decades. I’d struggled with implications of mortality in the years following Karen’s death, but now I was willing to start taking things on a bit of faith after reflecting on some of my experiences, past and present.
Robert eventually joined us for coffee, and as both of them spoke, we found ourselves immersed in a rich, complex history encompassing Karen’s life, the chaos in the ensuing days after the bombing of Pan Am 103, and the family’s search for justice. Both Bob and Peggy spoke with remarkable candor, and I appreciated their willingness to open up to a pair of strangers. There were several poignant moments—emotions ran deep even after 25 years, but the conversation was relatively upbeat as we heard about the remarkable kindness of strangers. Robert shared with us the story of the flag on the mantle, and of how veterans promised to place flags on Karen’s grave every year
There were no words that could express my gratitude at any time during the visit, which extended over 3 hours. I suspected that it could have lasted far longer, and we could have covered a variety of other topics just as easily.
Once, I’d resigned myself to the thought that I would never know who Karen Lee Hunt was. Though I would never meet her, I could finally say that she was no longer a stranger, as I’d learned more about who she was that day than I had in years of research. As we drove home, I had another epiphany of sorts: for years, I’d struggled to rationally explain many of the emotions, inspirations, and experiences stemming from Karen’s life and death. All of that now struck me as misdirected energy. It was time to accept that Karen moved me years ago, she continued to move me today, and I’d had some remarkable experiences and opportunities to meet some wonderful people because of her legacy.
Sometimes, it was better just to take things with a little faith. What will be, will be.
If children carry with them the echoes of their parents, then I can see much of who Karen was in light of this remarkable visit. Somehow, I feel as though whispers of Karen’s voice reached us through our meeting with Peggy and Bob as well. I’d always felt like I’d lost a friend when the full force of Karen’s death hit me in 1988. For the first time, I can understand why.
Karen’s light, voice, and memory are well-tended in that household. Thank you both for sharing a bit of yourselves, and of Karen, with Traci and I.