She balled her fist and knocked again. Still, no one answered.

She could have assumed the woman she had come to visit, a virtual stranger, wasn't home. But Jennifer Moy West wasn't raised to walk away when she suspected someone was in trouble. So she stayed outside the Prince George's County house that frigid February morning and relied on her conscience to tell her what to do.

West called paramedics and watched as they kicked in the carport door.

And there she lay, barely conscious, curled on the kitchen floor.

A day later, the elderly woman was dead.

When no one showed up to claim her at the morgue, the hospital dropped its dilemma in West's hands. The woman could stay in the morgue just three more days. If no one came, the body would be released to the state for cremation or use in medical research.

Three days.

"You've got to do something," a nurse at the hospital said.

The words echoed in West's head.

You've got to do something.

Part I

The message on West's answering machine had sounded urgent.

"Darling, this is Annie Lou Hendricks. Please call me right away. I need to talk to you."

Annie Lou Hendricks is 96. West, now a 43-year-old child psychologist, was just 4 when she stepped into Hendricks's home the first time for preschool. Hendricks launched her on a life of learning and achievement, and in 40 years student and teacher have never lost touch.

Hendricks planted big dreams in the souls of little black children at her preschool in the 1960s and '70s. Racial tensions bubbled to the streets in those days and often made the world outside a dangerous place.

But in Hendricks's home, in her classroom, in those little chairs lined in neat little rows, life felt safe and warm, like a grandmother's embrace.

Now Hendricks needed something from her. West picked up the telephone in her Prince George's town house and immediately called back.

"Do you remember my friend, Mrs. Hoover?" Hendricks asked.

West backtracked 20 years to a luncheon at her sister's house in Columbia. Hendricks had come to town to visit a graduate school classmate named Dorothy E. Hoover.

At the time, West was working on her master's degree at Towson State and living with her sister, Jean Lewis, who had invited the two old friends to her home for lunch. Hours before they were expected to arrive, the telephone rang, and a woman with a proper, high-pitched voice introduced herself. It was Hoover. She wanted to know what time she should bring Mrs. Annie Lou Hendricks over for the repast.

West covered the receiver with her hand and turned to her sister. A repast? What's that?

When the two women arrived, Hoover stood out like a magnolia tree in full bloom. She was about 61 then, a striking, tea-colored woman with black hair that draped around her shoulders and bangs that fell above the crests of her perfectly plucked and penciled eyebrows. She was wearing something dainty, and she insisted on calling the ladies "Miss" or "Mrs."

"Thank you, Mrs. Lewis, for the repast," Hoover said after lunch.

That's the image that circled in West's mind as her preschool teacher talked about Hoover, now 81.

"Well, she doesn't have anybody, and she's not doing well," Hendricks continued. "I need you to give her a call."

West promised she would.

The first time West called, Hoover kept pausing between words to catch her breath, as though she had just raced up three flights of stairs.

"Are you okay?" West asked.

"No, I'm not," she responded. "I don't feel good."

Hoover suffered from congestive heart failure and needed oxygen to breathe. There was no phone close to her bed, so she had to get up and drag her portable oxygen tank over to the dresser each time she got a call. West suggested Hoover see a doctor and asked if anyone nearby could drive her. Too sick to call herself, Hoover gave West the telephone number of Warner and Betty Crayton, the retired couple across the street.

For 20 years, the Craytons and Hoover had talked across yards and sipped coffee in each other's kitchens. They had driven Hoover to George Washington University Hospital before and quickly agreed to do so again.

The next evening, West called back.

Hoover sounded perkier. She had been to the doctor and was ready to chat. The conversation crossed generations for nearly an hour as the women talked about education, Oprah, marriage and life.

"I had a family, and now I'm all by myself," Hoover said at one point. "What's your situation? Are you married?"

West holds many titles. A Phi Beta Kappa college graduate with a doctoral degree. A child psychologist working in the Howard County schools. A homeowner in a gated community in Mitchellville. A churchgoing woman of faith. But, no, she told Hoover, she is not yet a wife or mother.

"I don't know what's wrong with these young men today," Hoover said.

West promised to visit soon.

A week passed. A near-blizzard swept through and left the metropolitan area frozen in place for days. It was about 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 5, when Warner Crayton walked across the street to hand Hoover her mail. Crayton took one look and knew something was wrong. Her eyes sagged. Congestion rattled in her chest. He bolted home and told his wife, "You need to go over there and see about her."

Betty Crayton called another neighbor, Judy Rodney, and the women marched across the street together. They sat at Hoover's table as she struggled to make coffee.

"I offered to get the coffee because it seemed like such a chore," Judy Rodney recalled.

The neighbors tried to talk Hoover into going back to the doctor. But this time, she refused. She had seen the doctor more than enough times in the past couple of years. And still, the congestion rising in her chest was smothering the life right out of her.

She couldn't sit behind the driver's seat of her new, dark blue Mercedes and steer herself around the county anymore. She couldn't get on her hands and knees in the dirt and dig around the yard anymore. She couldn't hoist the ladder on the side of the house, hike up and pull leaves out of her gutters anymore. She couldn't even make coffee for her friends.

There wasn't much the doctor could do to fix any of that.

As Betty Crayton sat there, a conversation with Hoover just three weeks earlier replayed in her mind.

"She was saying, 'I have congestive heart failure, and people don't get over that. I don't think I'll make it,' " Crayton recalled. "I said, 'Oh, Mrs. Hoover, you'll be all right.' "

But as the women said good night, Betty Crayton wasn't so sure.

That night, West called Hoover again. She was planning to visit the next day, and she was bringing her friend and neighbor, Diane Taylor, a congressional lobbyist. They had bought Hoover a cordless telephone so she could stay in bed and talk on the phone.

At 10:30 a.m. Sunday, West called again to say she and Taylor would be there in an hour. Hoover sounded out of breath.

The two women skipped church and drove in West's black BMW to Hoover's home in Temple Hills, a growing black middle-class sanctuary in southern Prince George's, just beyond the District line. It was a California-style rambler with reddish brick, beige siding and green shutters.

Minutes before noon, they were knocking on Hoover's side door.

When no one answered, they paced around the house and knocked on the other doors. Then they walked across the street to fetch the neighbors. The Craytons and the Rodneys had all gone to church.

Fingers shaking, West pulled out her cell phone and called an ambulance. Within minutes, lights blazing, paramedics were there.

Hoover was still wearing her nightclothes--a flowered flannel nightgown, red robe and pink terry cloth slippers. She opened and closed her eyes slowly and moaned a few instructions.

Men in blue shirts worked hurriedly around her. They lifted her head and checked her vital signs. Her body temperature was 10 degrees below normal, a mere 88 degrees. They hoisted her onto a stretcher and, sirens blaring, rolled on to Southern Maryland hospital.

West and Taylor followed. Around 7 p.m., West called back to the hospital to check on Hoover. But the nurse was reluctant to talk.

"Well, I'm all she's got," West heard herself saying.

Things didn't look good, the nurse replied. It was time to gather the family. That's when it really dawned on West: She had no clue how to find them. She didn't even know who they were. She had no names, no phone numbers, not one piece of useful information.

Surely, West thought, her old preschool teacher could help. West called, but Hendricks was away at Bethune-Cookman College in Florida, studying with other over-50 seniors still eager to learn. Whatever Hendricks knew about her friend would have to wait.

West called Hoover's minister and neighbors. But they couldn't help much either. Their reply was the same: Mrs. Hoover was such a private person.

Sleep seemed impossible for West that night. At midnight, she fell on her knees to pray. At 5 a.m. Monday, she picked up the telephone and punched in her sister's number. The emotion, the self-doubts, rushed out.

Should she have gone to visit Hoover Saturday night, instead of playing bid whist with the neighbors? Should she have asked more pointed questions about Hoover's family, instead of talking about Oprah's love life?

"This woman's life is in my hands," West told her sister, between heaving sobs. "What am I going to do?"

Later that morning, West went to work. She kept calling the hospital, but nothing changed. About 1 p.m., West called again to say she would be there in three hours. At least, West thought, she could rub the elderly woman's hand and let her know she was not alone.

But, the nurse replied, Hoover would be gone by then.

The nurse was right.

Monday night, West's phone rang. It was Hendricks calling from Florida. She'd heard the news but didn't know of any living relatives.

"You know, Dorothy was such a private person," Hendricks said. "What will happen to her now?"

Hearing the agony in West's silence, Hendricks called her by a name she has used since West was little: "Moy," she said, "you know what to do."

Part II

On this cloudy spring day in Atlanta, Hendricks sinks into a cushy chair in the same room where the little desks lined in neat little rows used to be. The old preschool classroom is now her bedroom.

She is radiant in her aqua business suit, white blouse and matching flat pumps. Her round face is as dark and serene as midnight. Her thin white clouds of hair twirl away from her face. Her eyes, big and bright, are graying a bit.

For the moment, the eyes are closed, head back, hands folded across the chest, as she tries to remember the first time she met Dorothy E. Hoover. Hendricks's mind is not quite as quick as it used to be, but nimble still, and filled with 96 years of names, places and dates.

It must have been around 1940. They were graduate students in mathematics at Atlanta University and had a class together.

"I like people, so I told her to come home with me for supper," Hendricks says.

In many ways, they were the same, Dorothy and Annie Lou, both intelligent women with an interest in math and a craving for knowledge, the the granddaughters of slaves. They were Southern girls from tiny towns who had made it to college when most of their peers were left toiling in the cotton fields back at home.

The women became friends. Hoover even moved in with Hendricks one summer. But at times, Dorothy E. Hoover could be as difficult to figure out as a differential equation.

"She never talked about her family," Hendricks says. "That child was private. I consider her a good friend, but she didn't tell any of her business. Her business was her business, and I accepted that."

After graduation, the friends went separate ways. But you can't really lose touch with Annie Lou Hendricks. When she calls someone friend, that means for life. That's how she was raised: Friends stay close to each other, look out for each other, take care of each other.

The village wasn't some African folklore to her. The village raised her.

When she was just a smart but poor girl, growing up in Noonan, Ga., with a single mother who earned $1.50 a week as a maid, a professor in town declared: "She's got to go to college."

He was talking about little Annie Lou. The townspeople put together what they could spare--a dollar here, 50 cents there--and sent her 39 miles down the road to Clark College in Atlanta.

The next year, a professor at the seminary next to Clark heard about the student who was outshining her peers. He recommended Hendricks to three women in Albion, Mich., who wanted to help a promising student. They financed her last three years in college, and she never laid eyes on them.

When Hendricks graduated as the valedictorian of her class in 1925, the Board of Education in Atlanta offered her a job at Washington High School, where she taught colored children math and Latin for the next 25 years.

Hendricks was 37 in 1941 when she married the widower who knocked on her door late one night because he saw the lights on and wondered whether anything was wrong. He was a good man. They adopted a son and a daughter, and Hendricks retired. Her daughter was 4 when Hendricks went back to work.

She opened her preschool, and a few years later, Jennifer Moy West enrolled. West's mother, Grace West Kemp, now 78, had been one of Hendricks's early math students.

To the children at the preschool, Hendricks's husband was "Daddy." Her children were "Brother" and "Sister." When West's mother, divorced and raising three children alone, couldn't pick her up, Daddy took the girl home.

To Hendricks, all the students were her children. Every so often she would send home a note, telling the parents to dress the children up in their finest because she was taking them to lunch at Rich's Magnolia Room.

Then she would pick up the telephone and call the restaurant: "Hello, I am Annie Lou Hendricks," she would say. "I'm bringing a class of colored children to your restaurant, and I need to know you will treat them well."

When Hendricks flew to Washington 20 years ago to visit Hoover, she slept in one of Hoover's color-coordinated bedrooms. After that, she stayed in touch with her old friend mostly by phone. It didn't matter much that Hoover was never the one to call.

But this year, Hendricks began to worry. When she last talked to Hoover in January, Hoover said she wasn't well. Since Hendricks couldn't be there to help out, she figured she would do the next best thing.

She would send one of her children.

"That's the way it used to be long ago in the black community," she says.

Part III

By the time West talked to Hendricks Monday night, she had called everyone she believed could help. And most of them had stories.

The neighbors recalled how much pride Hoover took in her house and yard. Before she bought something new, she researched it in consumer magazines. When the yard boy didn't cut the grass or shrubs to her satisfaction, the neighbors suddenly would see a new face behind the lawn mower.

Hoover loved traveling to cities where she had never been, but when she grew ill two years ago, she stayed closer to home. She took two-week "vacations" to Baltimore and Waldorf. While there, she stayed in the Holiday Inn and particularly liked shopping at the Wal-Mart for discounts.

Hoover and Judy Rodney shared an affinity for hair, makeup and decorating. Rodney could spend two hours with her feet parked under Hoover's kitchen table. They chatted about trivial things. But once, Rodney dared to ask Hoover about a photo on the wall of a stunning young woman.

It was Hoover's daughter. Hoover revealed that she had been married and also had a son. But, she told Rodney, both children had died young.

"What happened?" Rodney asked.

A curt reply followed: "I'd rather not talk about it."

Warner Crayton remembered that Hoover had mentioned once that a relative died a couple of years ago and willed everything to her. Her minister recalled a similar story. Her brother had died and left his home and property to her.

Judy Rodney recalled the special gift Hoover gave her for Christmas in 1984. Titled "A Layman Looks With Love at Her Church," the book was published in 1970 and charted the history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The author was none other than Hoover herself.

Rodney's jaw dropped when she read the biography on the cover.

Hoover was born in a small town in southwest Arkansas and attended local schools. She graduated from Arkansas AM&N College and attended Atlanta University, the University of Arkansas and the University of Michigan.

She taught in secondary schools in Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee and worked as a mathematician at the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit, Goddard Space Flight Center and Defense Communications Agency. She also belonged to two physics and math honor societies.

The biography said nothing about her family.

Monday was gone, and West still had no names.

Part IV

Hoover's house was the most obvious place to look for relatives' names, but it was locked. The key was in her locker at the morgue, and the hospital would release the key only to the next of kin.

On Tuesday morning, West called her sister, Jean Lewis, for advice on how to get into the house. Later that day, Lewis, a board member for Howard County's Community Action Council, attended a meeting and began telling a fellow board member about the dilemma.

The board member, Lillie Price-Wesley, a Harvard-educated lawyer, offered some advice: West should go to court to become Hoover's special administrator.

"We'll have to set the papers up. Call me tomorrow," Wesley told Lewis.

Then West got a lucky break.

She persuaded a reluctant worker in the medical records department at George Washington University Hospital to give her the emergency contact from Hoover's confidential medical files.

Hoover's church, Campbell A.M.E. in Southeast, was listed, but West knew the church had no information. There was another name: Martha Gethers. Heart sprinting, West called. Someone with the Securities and Exchange Commission answered, and sorry, there was no one there by that name.

On Wednesday, West woke up feeling nervous. Time was running out.

She called to ask if the hospital could hold Hoover an additional day, and she got a pleasant surprise. The Rev. William W. Easley Jr., Hoover's pastor at Campbell A.M.E. Church in Southeast Washington, had called the hospital, too. He asked if the body could be released to the church.

"When the hospital told me they were going to send her to the state, I said, with the kind of life she lived, I could not let that happen to her," Easley said.

He had been pastor of the church since 1992 and knew Sister Hoover as a faithful member. She never missed Sunday service and sometimes taught the Wednesday Bible study at noon.

Easley had visited Hoover last November when she was hospitalized at George Washington. He was standing at her bedside when a hospital worker, preparing Hoover's discharge papers, asked her who should be contacted in case of an emergency. Hoover gave the church's name and number.

"Although I thought it somewhat unusual, I didn't ask her about it," Easley said.

Now, Easley, a country boy from Lexington, Tenn., felt responsible.

"I knew it was approaching the time to get the body embalmed," he said. "That was worrying me."

The hospital allowed Easley to sign for the body. He then called Terry Austin, a church member and mortician at Austin Royster Funeral Home in Washington. She agreed to pick up the body and prepare it for burial. At least Sister Hoover would not be burned to ashes and buried in an unmarked grave.

Still no one knew: Did Hoover have any living relatives?

By midmorning on Thursday, Jean Lewis, who had stood in for her sister, had the court papers in hand: She was Hoover's special administrator. Lewis called her sister on the cell phone, and they agreed to meet at Hoover's home. But first, Lewis had to make another stop.

At Southern Maryland hospital, Lewis was escorted to the basement, down a long corridor to a booth, more like a drive-through window. She flashed her papers, and the attendant walked away. He returned with a plastic bag.

Tears rose from somewhere deep within as Lewis looked inside.

The house key rested atop Hoover's flowered flannel gown, red robe and pink terry cloth slippers, the physical remnants of a lonely death.

West was waiting at Hoover's house. It was her 43rd birthday.

The house was just as Hoover left it.

Pictures of her surrounded by white men in a business setting hinted that she worked with few other African Americans and women.

Her bedroom was the smallest of the three. In a bedroom drawer, the sisters discovered an old letter from the Democratic National Committee and a stack of signed pictures from Hillary and Bill Clinton. Like the president, Hoover, too, was from Hope, Ark.

It seemed Hoover had pulled information to prepare her taxes. A notebook listed every tax-deductible expense. Another contained every Christmas card list, including names and addresses, dating back to the 1940s. Her file cabinet stored thick stacks of meticulously arranged coupons, grocery lists, receipts, insurance papers and a list of her property and financial assets.

Dorothy E. Hoover was not a poor woman.

The sisters found the key to a safe deposit box, which stored the wills of deceased family members who had left property to her. But they could not find evidence that she had written a will herself. Considering the kind of papers strewn about the desk, though, the women guessed that Hoover was preparing to write one.

"To me, it appeared she recognized what she needed to do, and she was going about the business of doing it," Lewis said.

When the women entered the den, they found a scrapbook on a table. They had walked right by it before. Now they saw it for what it was: a box filled with missing puzzle pieces.

Laid out in photos, clippings, certificates and notations was her biography. There were pictures of Hoover's first husband, Sylvanus Bowe Clarke, whom she married in 1942, and photos of their daughter, Viola Clementine Clarke, born in 1947. The daughter's death certificate had been stored in a box. She died at 22. Notes under photos also identified Hoover's second husband, Richard Allen Hoover, whom she married in 1950, and their son, Ricardo Allen Hoover, who died at just 17.

Report cards, certificates and clippings told of her master's degrees in math and physics, doctoral studies at the University of Michigan and jobs at various federal agencies as a mathematician and aeronautic research scientist.

A yellowing newspaper clipping featured her as one of few female mathematicians at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, where she began work in 1959 after three years at the U.S. Weather Bureau in Washington. According to the article, Hoover was promoted to a grade 13 mathematician, earning a salary in excess of $11,000 after Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson released a report on minority employment in the federal service in August 1962.

"Women may be underestimated and their potential may not be fully put to use," the article quoted her as saying.

West couldn't stop reading. Finally, she was getting to know Hoover.

"It was almost like I was putting together a person," West said. "I was thinking, wow, she must have been heavy. Whatever she was, she had to be a trailblazer and pioneer."

Underneath some pictures in the scrapbook, West found perhaps the biggest puzzle pieces--the names of two women Hoover identified as her nieces. But there were no telephone numbers or addresses.

Then, on the table next to the scrapbook, West noticed a sheet of paper titled "My Family." It was a letter sent to Hoover by a seventh-generation cousin who was researching her family on the Internet. An Illinois telephone number was listed at the bottom.

West called. The cousin didn't know Hoover, but Hoover had responded to her request for information. Maybe they could compare notes. West recited the names of the two nieces, and the distant cousin checked her list for an address or telephone number. Bingo! The cousin had a number for Ozaree Twillie in Forrest City, Ark.

West immediately punched in the number. A man answered the telephone.

"Is this Ozaree Twillie's residence?" West asked.

"Yes, it is," the voice on the other end said.

A woman came to the phone. It was Hoover's niece. West broke the news, and the women exchanged information.

West hung up and, one by one, called her family and friends.

"We got somebody," she told them.

And for the first time in a long time, West slept all night.

Part V

Sister Hoover wore a bright yellow dress.

Her gold and white coffin stood at the front of Campbell A.M.E. Church. A spray of yellow carnations lay atop the coffin, and another sat on the floor.

It is well with my soul, the choir sang.

West sat on a pew near the front, a couple of rows behind the nieces. They had driven to town--one from Arkansas, and the other from Florida--and arrived at West's door 15 minutes apart. They said their aunt had been so private they wondered if they would know if something bad happened to her.

West turned over Hoover's key, and her work was done.

The nieces planned the funeral for Wednesday, Feb. 16, at noon.

The crowd was sparse, and the service lasted about an hour.

As West sat there, taking it all in, she leaned over to her friend Diane.

"I know she didn't die alone," West said. "God really looked out for this woman, who was such a servant for Him."

West searched for a word to describe the feeling that had soaked up all her tears.

"Peace," she said. "I feel such a sense of peace."