Celebrating a life taken too soon


Celebrating a Life TakenRAMSEY — As they have every year for 20 years during the third week of May, the John Y. Dater Elementary School community is celebrating a life taken too soon.

Two decades have not eased the pain of that loss; nor has a financial settlement only finalized last year by the government held responsible for that loss.

It stays with you for the rest of your life,” Tom Dater of Mahwah said of the death of his daughter, Gretchen, aboard Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in a 1988 terrorist attack. “It’s evident we are handling things better, but the word ‘closure’ we laugh at.”

The Syracuse University student was returning from a semester studying art in London along with 35 of her school mates when the bombing, engineered by Libyan terrorists, ripped apart the plane she was on, killing 270 people.

Her middle school art teacher, Michael Gratale, now principal of Dater, remembers learning about the bombing as if it was yesterday.

“I was coming out of what was Dater school at the time because I coached  basketball  for  Smith school and we were practicing there. I turned on the radio in my car and that’s when I found out about the plane…She was such a sweetheart, a great kid.” She would have turned 41 on Sunday, May 17.

In October, the Libyan government settled on a $2.7 billion compensation package for the families of those killed aboard the Pan Am flight and in a bombing of a German nightclub. Although reports indicated the families would each receive $10 million, Joan Dater, Gretchen’s mother, said she was prohibited by a non-disclosure agreement from talking about its details.

She said, however, that what money the family has received is being put toward the programs and scholarships that have been established to honor Gretchen and the Syracuse students who died, including an annual scholarship for Ramsey High School seniors and the events at Dater during what has become known as Gretchen Dater Art Week.

Gretchen’s love of art figures large in this now annual event at the school she once attended. An art room at the elementary school was dedicated in her honor last year, and art-related activities are part of the students’ curriculum throughout the week. The commemoration concludes with a luncheon attended by Gretchen’s childhood friends and family members.

Joan Dater said she was able to cope with the “shock” and “devastation” of Gretchen’s death because of all the support the family received from neighbors, friends and family. But what pulled her out of her slump was a desire to “fight back.”

She began meeting with other parents who lost children in the Pan Am bombing in early 1989 and formed an advisory board to seek justice for it. In addition to meeting every quarter, they lobbied politicians for legislation seeking retribution by the Libyan government. Joan Dater credits Sen. Frank Lautenberg for the financial settlement secured last year.

Although Gretchen’s brother, Chris, 35, said that “legally, for the most part, I think it’s come to a close,” closure on an emotional level is a “lifelong process.”

On Thursday, members of the Dater family and their friends sat around tables draped in yellow cloth and a centerpiece of flowers to share their memories in the very school named for Gretchen’s great-grandfather.

Joan Dater, who was an English professor at William Paterson University, said her daughter was “vivacious” and “loved life and was a lot of fun to be around.”

“She was very loyal and you could always depend on her,” said Chris, who was five years younger than Gretchen and of whom she was said to be “protective” at times.

Gretchen Dater Art Week, her mother said, “keeps her memory alive and educates our future leaders about terrorism.”

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