Remembering Sept. 11, 2001, and Denise

Somewhere in my house, I have a collection of things I put in a box to remind myself of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. There are emails, lists, names, and hospital numbers. I have not opened that box in over a decade. I thought maybe I would need it to recall everything that had been lost that autumn morning. I never considered how impossible it all would be to forget.

My most haunting recollection comes not from those horrific moments caught on television. Instead, it was a few days later when, as part of my job, I asked distraught family members to collect combs and toothbrushes to bring to the New York Armory Building to assist with identification. I remember trying to be professional and calm, as though it was all so normal and matter-of-fact. I was an ass. I was trying to not let it in. Too much work to do. Keep it together. Cry later. The families were kind and understanding because back then, hope was still very strong.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I worked for Aon’s Chicago office in the communications department. Aon occupied a number of floors at Two World Trade Center. When I was first hired years prior, my co-workers teased me mercilessly when I asked what “2WTC” meant on all the interoffice envelopes. I had no idea what a World Trade Center even was. I was as green as they came, appearing out of nowhere with my impractical English degrees and a resume that included Old Country Buffet and Eastern Illinois University’s food service.

I began in licensing and worked with brokers in dozens of offices throughout the country. My job was to make sure all brokers had up-to-date paperwork for the states they conducted business. It was a lot of phone work and I built relationships with many colleagues over time.

Yet as a 23-year-old Midwesterner, the New York office used to scare the living bejeezus out of me. The brokers were brash, impatient, demanding, and brilliant. I never understood what “moxie” meant until I started talking with the New York staff. I always received the dramatic brush-off: Marianne, I’m in the deal of my life here and I got no time for this crap today. I’ll call you next week (click).

Nobody ever called back and my New York charges started falling hopelessly behind with their renewals and new licenses. I was in over my head, feeling certain I would be fired at any moment.

And then someone told me about Denise Benedetto. The woman who would rescue my fledgling new career. She could move mountains, I was told. And if she liked you, she’d even toss a mountain your way now and then. Boy, could I use a mountain.

Our very first conversation revolved around what I needed. Denise was quick, concise, and friendly. I didn’t even know New Yorkers could be friendly back then. By the next morning, she secured all the signatures and certifications I had requested before her first morning cup of coffee. Denise always arrived early. At a company where most New York employees showed up around 9 a.m., Denise typically arrived closer to 8 a.m.

Only one time did she hesitate in helping me. It was when I rattled off a name of a certain broker who was notoriously hard to deal with. Could Super Woman actually be afraid of this guy?

“Marianne, this is the World Trade Center. The guy’s office is like a block away on the floor and I’ve got a busy morning. Do you know how long it would take me to get over there? Next time they send you to New York, come by and I’ll show you. You’ll need a mule. Send a fax. I’ll make sure he follows through.”

And she did. And I wouldn’t find out until years later that Denise had a serious spinal condition requiring surgery and had spent time in a body cast. She wasn’t one to complain. After a while, I learned to imitate Denise’s tactics and was able to charm, bully, and coerce my way into getting the cooperation needed from even the most resistant of New Yorkers. She had carefully taught me which names to drop and what days and times to bother certain people. I had my own insider.

A year or so later, Denise and I had both progressed at Aon. After earning an impressive and well-deserved promotion, she arrived in Chicago for some training. Denise made her way to my floor for our first face-to-face meeting.

Over the phone, Denise seemed larger than life. I thought for sure she would be tall and old. Authoritative. Imposing even. Yet when I met her in person, I was shocked. She was this tiny little lady. As I hugged her, I thought she would break. She was also much younger than I had envisioned, right around my age now, and very much her own woman.

I remember she couldn’t get over how big Lake Michigan was: “Oh my God, Mar. I thought, you know, Lake Michigan? I imagined a big pond. Look at it! It reminds me of the ocean.”

She then somehow convinced me to take her to CEO Pat Ryan’s office. My heart was in my throat as she spun around giddily in his chair. I figured we would be busted by the head honcho himself. Yet how could I refuse? I understood that if it hadn’t been for her encouragement and help, I would have never lasted a month at Aon. I would have never become friends with the people who worked there and who dragged me out the night I met my husband. My husband, of course, gave me the three most wonderful boys in the world. Too often, one person can change the course of your life without even knowing it. For me, Denise was that person.

Denise died on Sept. 11, 2001. The little, confident New Yorker who somehow took a naive greenhorn and turned her into a gal with moxie will always be on my mind this day.

And many other days.

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