Last Memories, Lasting Tributes

At the funeral for Virginia Tech student Mary Read, from left, her father, Peter, stepmother, Cathy, and brother Stephen. Signatures from friends and family adorn the casket at St. Mary of Sorrows Church in Fairfax Station.
At the funeral for Virginia Tech student Mary Read, from left, her father, Peter, stepmother, Cathy, and brother Stephen. Signatures from friends and family adorn the casket at St. Mary of Sorrows Church in Fairfax Station. "She was the teenage girl every parent would love to have," her father said. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

In a terrible week when blessings were few, Peter Read considers himself fortunate that his daughter Mary came home to Annandale to spend time with her grandparents the weekend before the shootings at Virginia Tech.

Everything about the weekend was just so ordinary, he recalled. Read played on her laptop, instant-messaging her friends. She and her dad prepared her first-ever income tax form. And Saturday night, she asked her stepmother, Cathy, to teach her how to make her favorite dessert, pumpkin pie.

Halfway through, her grandmother snapped a picture of Mary Read, a big smile on her face as always, waving a rolling pin above her first successful pie crust. Look closely and you can see a little smudge of flour on her upper lip.

She took a piece of pie back to school that Sunday night. Her family found the empty container when they packed up her tidy dorm room days later. The 19-year-old was among those fatally shot.

"What college freshman stays home with her family on Saturday night -- baking pies?" her grandmother, Catherine Read, of Macedon, N.Y., marveled.

But that was Mary, friends and family say. She could be introverted, but not so much that her sunny personality was shaded at Annandale High School, from which she graduated last spring. She was a member of the homecoming court. She played lacrosse, and clarinet in the marching band. Her band mates voted her "Best Smile."

Mary, killed in her French class, was buried yesterday after a Catholic Mass at St. Mary of Sorrows Church in Fairfax Station. More than 900 of her friends, family members and former teachers came to mourn her, some lining the route to the cemetery with hands over their hearts, clutching white balloons. At graveside, the Annandale Marching Atoms serenaded her with "Amazing Grace" and a final playing of the school's fight song.

At the service, her father, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, told the mourners that he never intended to give a eulogy, hoping it would be more a celebration of her life. But he ended up pulling out a little red notebook taken from Mary's room he'd found only yesterday morning. In it were Mary's handwritten notes on forgiveness, dated Feb. 4.

"When a deep injury is done us, we will never recover until we forgive," he read from the notebook. "That was Mary's message," he said. "I just wanted to share it with all of you."

Read was born in South Korea in January 1988, the daughter of an American serviceman and his Korean bride, Yon Son Zhang, now of Palisades Park, N.J. She spent much of her short lifetime bridging the gap between the two cultures, her father said, as she would later bridge the divide between her divorced parents.

On her MySpace profile, when asked to describe herself, she wrote, "Uhm . . . a girl who's half-Asian and half-white."

She loved Korean food and was slowly learning how to read and write the language, her father said. And it was going to take a while. "That was something else she expected to have time to do," he said.

She lived the typical peripatetic existence of military offspring -- in Texas, California and back to South Korea -- until 1997, when her parents separated and she went to live with her mother in Clarksburg, Tenn. After Peter Read remarried, to Navy Cmdr. Cathy Read, Mary and her brother Stephen, now 11, moved to Annandale in 2001.

At Annandale High School, she got more B's than A's, but she was diligent and a member of the National and French honor societies, her father said.

She loved kids and wanted to be a teacher. She had a lot of practice with them. In addition to her brother, she had four half-siblings ages 10 months to 11 years and had "honchoed" the Easter Egg hunt for some of them just two weeks before.

"She was the teenage girl every parent would love to have," Peter Read said. "I never had to worry with Mary -- she always made the right choices, had the right friends."

She was an enthusiastic member of the marching band, concert band and the school's flag-waving "winter guard," said her band teacher, Jack Elgin. She was a section leader for the clarinets, but her personality made it hard to keep order among the unruly teens in the band, he recalled.

"She was so nice she couldn't bring herself to yell at anybody," Elgin remembered. "We used to get on her for that. She'd giggle them into doing something . . . like 'C'mon guys,' real sweet and soft-spoken."

Once at Tech, she chose a major -- interdisciplinary studies -- with hopes of later studying for a master's degree in education. Like many freshmen, though, she was sometimes sad and lonely and struggled to fit in on Tech's big campus.

"She was still getting used to it. It's big, a huge campus, so it's hard for everybody," said Tim Johnson, 19, a friend from Annandale who also attends Tech. They'd talk about it sometimes, when Johnson walked her back to her dorm after class.

In recent weeks, though, she'd begun settling down, signing up to be a Bible study leader and talking about joining a sorority, friends said.

Johnson was just one of dozens of Read's former and current classmates who have streamed by the family's tan colonial on a cul-de-sac in Annandale since last week to grieve and comfort each other. A tree in the front yard has become a makeshift shrine, with Read's picture and candles and flowers. Friends write messages on tags -- "We Love You Mary" and tie them to the branches.

Sometimes when it's quiet and no one else is around, her father stands by the tree. He says he can only bear to read a few of the little tags at a time.

He'd like for her to see it. He says he asked the funeral home if they would drive the hearse by the house on the way to the cemetery, so Mary could come home one more time.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company