(Editor’s note: Former N&O columnist Dennis Rogers still gets asked about his family. He offers this column to fill readers in – and to thank them.)
Thirteen years ago, the folks who read my column in The N&O were there for us when our family’s heart was shattered. Our daughter Melanie had been killed in a wreck, and thousands of you reached out to help us struggle through those dark times.
Last Sunday, Topsail High School sophomore Caroline Van Leuven and the cast of “The Little Mermaid, Jr.” took their final bows of this year’s spring show. Caroline played the role of the villainous eel Flotsam, and was, if a proud grandfather may be allowed a shameless brag, magnificent in her malevolence.
There were lots of hugs and tears as students, teachers and parents embraced every precious, fleeting and shining moment of their final curtain call. I must confess that more than one of those tears were mine.
Melanie would have been so proud of her grownup little girl.
Longtime readers of my column got to know our girls Melanie and Denise quite well. They were frequent fodder for my writings, but they – albeit reluctantly – accepted their lack of teenage privacy as their burden for being a columnist’s kid.
The outpouring of love and support from readers and friends when Melanie was killed on Dec. 14, 2000, was both uplifting and stunning. She had grown to be a smart and gentle woman, a New Hanover County kindergarten teacher who worked in one of the county’s poorest schools.
She was killed on a December morning when a driver with no license, no registration and no insurance slammed a speeding car into a busy Wilmington intersection, setting off a chain-reaction crash that ended our daughter’s life at age 34. She left behind husband Karl Van Leuven and daughters Laura, 5, and Caroline, 3. The driver went to jail while we all went home to wonder what would happen next.
What happened was a display of love from the people of Raleigh and Eastern North Carolina that left us speechless. There were more than a thousand calls and letters from readers who wanted to do something, anything, to take the pain away, even as they knew in their hearts that nothing but time would heal.
A show of support
But, God bless them, our friends would not be deterred: David and Devon Bennett organized a benefit at Raleigh Little Theater and called on the Capital City’s vibrant and supportive theater community to put on a show for Melanie’s kids.
Devon contacted dozens of Broadway theatrical producers and casts to tell them what they were doing. Soon they had autographed theater posters, playbills and photographs from stars including Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Henry Winkler, Bebe Neuwirth and Angela Lansbury for a silent auction. All of the money raised went into an education fund for Melanie’s daughters.
The show, which harked back to the black-and-white days of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movies, was alternately funny, rousing and sweet. Theater folks are a family, and like all families, we may have our spats, our tiffs and our jealousies, but we close ranks when one of us is hurting. I’ve never felt so loved, so strong and so blessed as I did standing on that RLT stage surrounded by such terrific people. As I told them that night, I hope one day to be worthy of such friendship.
David, meanwhile, was organizing the area’s motorcycle riders. Riders by the hundreds, many of whom we’d ridden beside at other public-service events, showed up at Ray Price Harley-Davidson on a sunny morning to put on a poker run to support one of their own and raise more money for the education fund.
Longtime friends and respected colleagues Ruth Sheehan and Bill Krueger passed the hat around The N&O newsroom even as letters from readers kept pouring in. I was never able, physically or emotionally, to answer all those sweet notes of support, remembrance and help, but they have all been packed away safely in boxes.
One day, if Laura and Caroline ask about the mom they never got to know, your letters will be there to tell them how much she was loved and respected.
The happy ending
Here’s the happy ending to this story: This fall, Caroline, 16, will be attending the UNC School of the Arts as a high school junior to study visual arts. Laura, 18, has just finished her first year at prestigious American University in Washington, where she’s aiming toward a possible career in the diplomatic service.
From all of us who lost a daughter, a mom, a sister, a friend or a wife that dreadful day, thank you.
Melanie would be proud of you, too.