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Bella English

9/11 widows find ways to give back

By Bella English
Globe Columnist / September 11, 2011

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It was October 2001, and Diann Corcoran was in the throes of grief and shock over the death of her husband, Jay, who was on United Airlines Flight 175, the second plane to hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. Jay Corcoran was 43 years old, a merchant marine flying to Los Angeles to ship out.

Friends, neighbors, and townspeople in Norwell wanted to do something, anything, to help Diann and the two children. “People kept saying, ‘What can we do?’ There was such an outpouring of support,’’ says Diann. She took the proceeds of what the family was given - and gave it back.

“We wanted to do something for our community,’’ she says. She targeted the schools. “Jay’s dad had been a school principal, and Jay felt very strongly about the [Norwell] school system. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to raise our children here.’’

So just a month after the terrorist attacks, Diann established the Jay Corcoran Memorial Scholarship Fund. Every year since then, the fund has given scholarships to Norwell High School seniors - more than $300,000 so far. Every September, a golf tournament is held to benefit the fund. Fund-raising has been so successful that the number of scholarships given each year has increased from two students to four.

“We look for grades, community service, school activities, their essays, and financial need,’’ says Diann, who serves on the board of the Massachusetts 9/11 Fund.

Christie Coombs serves on the board with her, and she, too, lost her husband on 9/11, when he was 43 years old. Jeff Coombs was on American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to hit the World Trade Center. Jeff, who worked for Compaq, was en route to LA for a business meeting. His children were 7, 11, and 13 when he died.

Two months later, Christie organized an auction and yard sale at an elementary school in Abington, where the family lived. “The response was unbelievable, ’’ says Christie, who still lives in town. They raised $50,000, which they donated to 9/11 families struggling to pay bills.

“I think we just needed to do something,’’ says Christie. “We needed a place to take all of that negative energy and do something good to take our minds off the terrible sadness we were feeling.’’

The following year, her friend Donna Cherry suggested holding a memorial road race to bring the Abington community together to raise money for causes in Jeff’s name. Next Sunday the 10th Annual Jeff Coombs Memorial Road Race/Walk and Family Day will be held, with a special tribute to the military and the 9/11 victims, especially Jeff and the 205 other New Englanders, many of them from Massachusetts.

The race is on what would have been Jeff’s 53d birthday, and his widow says she sometimes tries to picture him 10 years older than the last time she saw him as he left for the airport. “I wonder who he would be now,’’ she says. “What would our family be like with him here physically?’’

No doubt he’d be proud of all of them. Last year, the road race cleared $30,000, and Christie has other fund-raising events, too. Some of the proceeds benefit families in need of help because of an illness or death. The fund has provided wheelchair ramps for military families and grief counseling, and helped cover medical and household bills. It bought a washing machine for a family, paid off cellphone bills.

Those helped are referred from social workers, churches, and other organizations, or word of mouth. “There has to be a meaningful underlying cause for them to get assistance,’’ says Christie. The fund also supports Abington educational programs and scholarships.

All along, Christie has also wanted to provide her children a valuable lesson in giving back. “I needed to show the kids that when people do nice things for you, you do nice things for others,’’ she says.

Meaghan was 13 when her father was killed, and at 15 she was diagnosed with depression stemming from his death. She got the help she needed and decided she wanted to hold a concert to raise money for the Jeff Coombs Foundation.

For five years, she organized and held a Summer’s End concert with popular bands from this area, including A Rocket to the Moon from Braintree. Each concert brought in $5,000; the bands performed for free. Her two top bands are on tour this summer, so no Summer’s End concert. Meaghan just started her senior year at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I.

This year, the Coombs road race will feature a piece of the World Trade Center steel and the Patriot Flag, a 30-by-58-foot flag that will fly overhead from the Abington Fire Department’s ladder truck. The flag, some of it recovered from ground zero, has toured the country in the past year, flying in each state. This weekend it is flying at the four crash sites in New York, Arlington, Va., and Shanksville, Pa.

Retired New York firefighter Joe Torrillo, who survived injuries sustained after being buried in debris at ground zero, will accompany the flag to Abington. When runners receive their medals, 53 helium balloons, in honor of Jeff Coombs’s birthday, will be released.

Since Sept. 11 has been designated a National Day of Service and Remembrance, participants are encouraged to bring a nonperishable food item for the Abington/St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry. The road race is also a family day that includes free food, children’s activities, and prizes.

More than 1,000 are expected to show up for the 5K race/run this year, and last year for the first time, there were more runners than walkers. Christie Coombs will not be among them. She likes to cheer others on at the finish line. “Besides,’’ she says, “I’m a lousy runner.’’

Globe columnist Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at english@globe.com.