Early on the morning of September 11, 2001, Tom Collins and Chris Panatier went to work at the World Trade Centers. Coincidentally, these high school friends worked on the 104th floor of the opposite towers. They both perished that morning. I did not know them then. However, over the past year I have gained a wonderful understanding of their impact as productive and creative human beings. Their lives touched a great many people in a positive manner. Indeed, though I never met them, they have influenced my life. This is the story of how I became involved with the memorial project.
At the age of twenty-six I began teaching Ceramics and Sculpture at Chapman University in Orange, California. During my eleven-year stay at Chapman, I met Larry Pace, a graduate of Half Hollow Hills High School in Dix Hills, New York. We got along well as he was young and strong and I always needed help lifting something! We have been friends since and his children call me Uncle Bret. In April of 2003, Larry told me about his classmates, Chris and Tom, who had lost their lives in the 9-11 tragedy. He related that his high school Class of ’83 wanted to create some kind of tribute in their memory. He asked me if I would consider making and donating a sculpture to be placed in a garden honoring their memory. I agreed, on one condition; he would have to help me build the piece.
Since that moment, everything having to do with this tribute has grown exponentially. Every person from whom I have sought help agreed; no bills no costs. The metal for the sculpture was donated, there was no charge for the galvanizing, even the sandblasting was free. The company that transports my sculptures all over the country said that they would be honored to ship this piece from Orange County to Long Island at no charge. Tom, the man who drove the truck to Half Hollow Hills High School, stayed – off the clock, amid a blackout, to help with the entire exhausting installation. Kurt Soderling, another long-time friend, former student, and alumni from Chapman University had a great deal to do with another aspect of this project. Kurt, along with Brigid Walsh agreed to film the bending of the sculpture, in order to have it shown at the class reunion. We all thought it would be a nice touch and help the Class of ’83 feel connected to the motivation behind and the creation of this tribute. After bending the steel and putting the form up, we all realized that there was something bigger and more meaningful in the air. Almost in unison we all knew that the story of Chris and Tom, their families, friends, and even the people they had impacted, yet never met, should be told. To that end, a film titled “The Class of ’83” is currently being edited, and its completion is scheduled for the summer 2004.