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Remembering Duke's Lost

John “Rob” Lenoir, Trinity ’84, wore glasses. After a day of trading bonds at Sandler O’Neill, on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center’s south tower Rob would wrestle with his kids. Usually, he remembered to take his glasses off, until, in the throes of one match, his daughter broke them. He never replaced them with contacts.

Rob was killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks 10 years ago along with five other Duke alumni. This month has been one of reflection for the nation, a time to look back and see how far we have come, how we are forever different. A memorial has opened in New York to remember the people who died, including Rob. “I’d rather him not just be a number or a name on the wall at the end of the day, because that’s a person, that’s my dad, and it’s not just another one-of-3,000 statistic,” said Rob’s son, Andrew Lenoir, now a college senior. “And I think in some ways that’s for us to do, and I’m OK with that, that’s part of the separation between personal loss and public loss.”

Thousands of weeks later and hundreds of miles away in Durham, Duke’s loss is still personal, though many on campus may know little about the lives of those who were killed.

Rob Lenoir was a southern boy naive enough about life up North to ask his girlfriend once whether there were trees in New York, where she was from. Growing up across the South living in Memphis, Atlanta and Columbia, Rob worked hard to get into Duke on a football scholarship as a defensive lineman. But on campus, Rob also valued having a good time and attracted a wide group of friends. He joined Alpha Tau Omega fraternity and though he preferred sleep to morning classes, he was serious enough about his schoolwork to be a B student.

The first week of his sophomore year, Rob was walking through campus with a friend when he caught the eye of a freshman girl in his building sitting in her first-floor window. They began dating a few weeks later, and Susan Haack, Trinity ’84, became Susan Haack Lenoir soon after they graduated.

“He loved to have fun in life, he was definitely an easy going, gentle giant—you’d take a look at him, he had the football player build with the big neck... but despite that he was definitely a loveable bear,” Susan said.

Rob and Susan moved to New York City, where he began working as a banker. At Duke, Rob had lost some of his accent but did not forget his roots—a big Southern family with big Southern traditions—and when his children were born, he wanted to share his experiences with them. He became a storyteller. He would read to his kids, Andrew and Courtney, every night before they went to bed. On the way back from a cruise in Bermuda celebrating Susan’s parents’ wedding anniversary, the family passed the World Trade Center. They decided to take a picture in front of the towers because “that’s dad’s building.” One month later, Rob, 38, was one of 66 Sandler O’Neill employees that didn’t make it home that day, and suddenly Andrew and Courtney became two of the firm’s more than 75 children who lost a parent.

Rob Lenoir and family

Everything is different now. Andrew, a senior at Brown University, had to teach himself to shave; Courtney, a sophomore at New York University, had to rely on others to fill in her largely incomplete memories of her father; and with the kids out of the house, Susan is learning how to be alone for the first time in her life. Although this is the family’s everyday, Rob is still a big presence. The Lenoirs support an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, and they raised enough money to establish a library there in Rob’s name. Andrew wants to become a journalist to use the love of storytelling he got from his father in a way that also “serves a higher purpose.” Courtney, who is designing her own major at NYU, ties her interest in human rights and her extensive activist work to her experience on 9/11. And for all their accomplishments, Susan said her husband would be most proud of his family’s loyalty to each other, their strength as a family.

“He’s definitely idolized in my head,” Courtney said. “It’s strange because when you’re a kid you don’t remember a lot anyway. That’s probably the most unfortunate thing about the whole experience is that I was nine, so most of my memories are not full memories, they’re more little tidbits I’ve heard or things I’ve seen in pictures. So it’s kind of like my dad in my head is this larger than life figure, but he still has an impact in my life every day.”

Lacrosse brought Peter Ortale, Trinity ’87, to Duke from Philadelphia. Small for a midfielder, Peter made up for his size with extra effort, and at Duke he was named a three-time team MVP, a co-captain his senior year and All-ACC. He was an explosive player who led the team in ground balls, played “with reckless abandon” and “wanted to win more than anybody else,” teammates remembered. Some years later, a lacrosse scholarship was founded in his name.

Peter valued the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual debates and he nurtured a particular interest in Russian literature. To him, the ultimate luxury vacation was reading “War and Peace” uninterrupted on a beach.

“He liked Tolstoy and some of the philosophers and things like that, that was kind of Pete,” recalled friend and former teammate, Dr. Scott Schraff, Trinity ’87. “He was the blue-collar kid who cut his own path, and I think he really identified with people and things that were individualistic, and did things the way he thought they should be done.... He wasn’t going to let people tell him what to do.”

When he was looking for a job, his sister, Cathy Grimes, remembers coaching Peter for banking interviews after he returned from time abroad. “It was so funny what he thought would be reasonable answers,” she recalled.

Yet Peter did land a job in New York’s financial industry and in May 2000, he married Mary Duff. Sixteen months later, at 37, Peter went to work in the Euro Broker offices on the 84th floor of the World Trade Center’s south tower. He didn’t leave, but with his strong morals and loyalty to his friends, Peter’s teammates are convinced he got held up trying to help others make it out, too.

This September, Peter’s family and friends gathered at a bar he frequented, The Bailey Pub & Brasserie, where a portrait of Peter hangs. The celebration aimed to raise money for the scholarships in Peter’s memory at Duke and at his high school, The William Penn Charter School. It was a chance to remember Peter and celebrate the things that mattered most to him, his sister said.

“He was a person who was an explorer, a truth seeker, adventurous, extremely generous,” Cathy said. “I think his attitude was: What are you saving for? What do you care? Let’s just go. Let’s just do. If you didn’t have the means and he did—you’re in. If neither of us have the means, we’re going to improvise, you’re never going to let an experience be fleeting. Just go and do.”

Christopher Todd Pitman, Trinity ’93, knew in high school that he wanted to go to Duke and knew soon after stepping onto campus that he wanted to work on Wall Street. He watched basketball games, played club hockey and bonded with his Delta Tau Delta brothers. A quietly competitive economics major, he took Japanese—the language his grandmother spoke around the house she lived in with Todd’s parents and sister. That house was usually full of friends—boys sleeping over before the next morning’s practice or sparring in knee-hockey in the playroom. Todd would remain close with those childhood friends, who, even after Todd went to boarding school in Connecticut, came back to the Pitman’s every summer. Gary Gerst, who was introduced to Todd as a toddler, now tells his children stories about their “Uncle Todd in the sky.”

Two years after graduating from Duke and joining Cantor Fitzgerald, Todd moved to Tokyo to lead its currency and trading division in Asia. After moving to New York’s East Village in 2000, Todd bought the property next to his father’s lake house, drew designs and contacted an architect about building a home there to have everything in place for the time he could stop working in the city. He figured he needed a little more than 10 more years.

The week of September 3, 2001, Todd returned to the city after celebrating his 30th birthday in his hometown of Skaneateles, New York, where Gary’s family had thrown him a surprise party. That week, he called an architect about building his cabin on the lake, and he went back upstate for the weekend to help his dad at his own lake-front property. Dressed in a button-down shirt and jacket that had been his style since the ninth grade, he watched Gary coach a varsity soccer team to a shootout victory and then the two went downtown for drinks. Three days later, at work in Cantor Fitzgerald’s offices in the north tower, Todd died.

Todd’s father, Eric Pitman, built the lake house his son did not have time to see completed and stood in as best man at Gary’s wedding in 2002. Still, 10 years later, Todd has continued to give through his family and friends. They created the angel fund Todd’s Fund to provide financial assistance for families whose children’s lives have been affected by tragedy, which Gary hopes his oldest son, Nathan Todd Gerst, might someday help run. It has raised more than $750,000 in Todd’s name. And at Todd’s high school, The Hotchkiss School, a fund still stands in Todd’s mother’s name that he created for students who could not afford to travel home for the holidays—a donation he kept secret from even his family. It now bears his name, too.

“I can’t ever say now that things happen for a reason because you can’t ever tell me that there was a reason that happened,” Gary said. “There’s things that happen, but what you have to realize is in a horrible situation, what can you learn from it? What can you do for good? As much as we have this memorial for 9/11 and how horrific it was, there’s a 9/11 every day but it’s just a small one.”

For A. Todd Rancke, Trinity ’81, Duke was a family place. Two of his three older sisters, Pam Schroeder, School of Nursing ’75, and Cynthia Bienemann, Nursing ’78, were alumni and later, two nephews played baseball and lacrosse there. Duke is also where Todd met his wife, Debbie Basham, whose parents lived in Durham. The two were married in the Duke Chapel before moving back to Todd’s hometown of Summit, N.J., where his parents and siblings still live. In his own time at Duke, Todd joined Phi Delta Theta fraternity. A clean-cut, active guy, Todd was never alone on campus and hardly said no to any invitation to go anywhere.

After graduation, Todd worked at Bear Stearns and moved to Sandler O’Neill in the 1990s. There, Todd was a role model. Fred Price, managing principal at Sandler O’Neill, who initially tried to recruit Todd from Bear Stearns when the firm opened but was turned down until a few years later, remembered young employees would seek advice from Todd. His friendliness and approachability drew the admiration of his co-workers and clients who liked him so much they would vacation with the Ranckes. Although Todd worked hard at the office, he was a dedicated family man at home. Every Sunday after church, the family would go to lunch, Debbie remembered, then go home and get on their bikes and ride in formation: Todd in the front, the three children—Christina, Brittany and Todd—in the middle and herself in the back.

On “Take Your Daughter to Work Day,” Todd brought his eldest, Christina, to visit his office on the 104th floor. The fast elevator hurt her ears, but she could play on his computer, meet the other kids and see what he did all day. Now a junior at Southern Methodist University, going to work with Todd remains one of Christina’s favorite memories.

“I was with him for 11 years, but I still remember I admired him for his ability to maintain such good relationships and friendships,” Christina said. “He really was just one of those people who got along with everybody.”

One Saturday in early September, Todd and his family went to his niece’s engagement party in Connecticut. On the way home, Todd and Cynthia’s husband, in separate cars, raced to see who would get there faster, laughing the whole ride. Arriving in Summit that night, Cynthia recalls, was the last time she saw her brother. Three days later, Todd, 42, went missing in the south tower of the World Trade Center after placing a call to his wife. When the towers fell, the haze was visible from New Jersey. Todd’s family went into the city for days, searching hospitals for him with the help of a “60 Minutes” crew led by Todd’s neighbor. When Todd’s memorial service took place, a crowd turned out to remember the man they called, “Mr. Mayor.” Since then, Debbie has remarried and moved with the children to Florida. Christina is in Dallas, Brittany in college in Florida and “little Todd,” a senior in high school, is applying to schools, but Todd remains in their lives.

“It’s so unfortunate what happened, but he touched so many lives in such a good way that something beautiful came out of that,” Debbie said. “We have such wonderful memories because my children were very close to him. The children that were born after 9/11, my heart just goes out to them, because we were so fortunate for our children to know him so well and be so close to him, and I thank God for that every day.”

Frederick Rimmele III, School of Medicine ’94, practiced academic family medicine in northern Massachusetts after completing medical school at Duke—a place he loved to complain about in a way that was constructive and good-natured, one friend, Moshe Usaid, Medicine ’94, said at his memorial service. The “curmudgeon in residence” had a sharp sense of humor and sarcasm that he used in writing a column in the medical school’s newspaper.

Fred found ways to cope with his distaste for the Triangle area. He didn’t let his love for being outdoors be squashed by his lack of a car. “He would treat it like a prize, ‘Who gets to bring me?’” recalled Dr. Katharine Kevill, Medicine ’94. With his medical school friends he fished in the Eno River, swam in the quarry and explored swamps. He met his wife outdoors, too, the summer after graduating while hiking in New Hampshire. He proposed to her a year later in Maine—on a mountain—and they married in 1997 in a small, lakeside town.

“Fred was an Eagle Scout, amateur naturalist, faithful church-going Episcopalian, a consummate Scrabble player, a dabbler in the stock market, a hopeless romantic, a homebrewer and a loyal friend,” his wife, Kim Trudel, wrote in a Duke Magazine memorial in 2001.“His disposition was naturally curious and inventive. His playful personality intertwined seamlessly with his firm moral compass and his natural ability to lead.”

Patients felt comfortable around Fred, the kind of doctor that took extra time to talk with them and show that he cared. New patients would ask for the doctor with the beard and the ponytail. Even as a practicing physician, Fred helped keep the group of medical school friends together, Kevill said, going through his phonebook to check in on people and instigating gatherings.

On the way to a conference in Monterey, Calif., Fred, 32, boarded United Airlines Flight 175 the morning of Sept. 11 to travel from Boston to Los Angeles. Forty-nine minutes after taking off, the plane plowed into the south tower. But even though his life wasn’t long, Kevill said his commitment to working to make the world better was as clear to see as it is missed.

“He died a happy man,” she said in an interview. “He loved his life, he loved his wife, he loved his friends, he loved being outside and he loved his job.... He took no prisoners.”

Michael Morgan Taylor, Trinity ’81, earned his bachelor of science from Duke and went on to get a master’s in chemistry and business administration from the University of California at Los Angeles. Three years after leaving Duke, Michael arrived in New York City, a stark contrast to his small-town home in western Pennsylvania, and went to work for Cantor Fitzgerald trading high-yield bonds.

A quick-witted brother with three younger siblings, Michael’s brother Jim Taylor and sister Mary Kaye Crenshaw remembered his ever-ready one-liners and meticulous, disciplined approach to his hobbies, in a Duke Magazine memorial in 2001. An avid golfer, Michael would spend hours practicing his swing. All that time paid off—in exchange for golf lessons, he was able to convince a friend and NASCAR driver to teach Michael to drive the Porsche he bought.

During the long Labor Day weekend in 2001, Michael visited his parents and played golf. He shot a 73, Jim recalled, the best round of the 42 year old’s life. Michael, who, like Todd Pitman, worked in the Cantor Fitzgerald office in the north tower, went back to work a few days later and after sending a hurried instant message to a trader in Chicago that something had exploded in the World Trade Center, was not heard from outside the building again.

Jim wrote that he calls happy memories of his brother, “Michael Moments.” “Anyone who lost someone in New York or Washington has their own ‘Michael Moments.’ These flashes in time bring us joy and a reason to smile. For me, it’s a time to remember my brother’s mischievous grin, his playful nature, his nervous pacing around a room or his attention to detail.”

In the 10 years since Sept. 11, people have moved, remarried, changed jobs and become hard to find. Although Towerview reached out to family and friends of Frederick Rimmele and Michael Taylor, only one friend responded and her memories are included in this piece. Several remembrances have been written for the two over the years, and they serve to help create a portrait of their lives at Duke and beyond.

It’s easy to see these men as victims. It’s easier still to see them as simply strangers who graduated years ago, far-removed from Durham and from Duke. As different as these men were from each other or even current students, they were individuals with one striking similarity beyond the tragedy we memorialize. They were connected to Duke, and their lives were worth celebrating.

“You don’t remember people for how they left us, you remember them for how they were,” Andrew Lenoir said of his father, Rob. “I recognize that the focus is the event of 9/11, it’s been 10 years but I think that’s the way everyone wants to remember him—as the man that he was, not necessarily how he was taken from us.”

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