Three days before she was slain in a lonely wooded area of southern Maryland, Frostburg State College art student Stephanie Ann Roper made her final journal entry in a spiral notebook.
"I pray for time," she wrote on March 30. "I want so much for all of my work to be good and not trite or silly. I want to be a serious artist."
On the verge of graduating and facing a future of promise as a commercial artist, the 22-year-old honor student was rushing to finish her portfolio and to prepare for the requisite art show scheduled for April 30. She even brought two unfinished drawings home to work on the weekend of her death.
Then, in the early morning hours of Saturday, April 3, Roper was kidnapped, raped and murdered after her car ran off the road in rural Prince George's County, a few miles from her parents' home in Croom and half a mile from the home of her college roommate, with whom she had spent Friday evening at a District of Columbia disco bar, The 21st Amendment.
Last Wednesday, a Baltimore County jury convicted Jack Ronald Jones, 26, of St. Mary's County of the crime, based in part on the testimony of codefendant Jerry Lee Beatty, 17, who faces a separate trial later this month. On Wednesday, testimony begins on whether Jones should be sentenced to death.
The victim's mother, who sat through most of the trial, plans to attend the sentencing. Meanwhile, Roberta Roper, 45, has dedicated herself to preserving the positive memories of her daughter's life. Roper, herself an artist who is planning a local show of Stephanie's work next spring, says, "It's far more important for people to know how she lived than how she died."
Yesterday, Roper proudly displayed Stephanie's awards and art work, the quotations Stephanie copied of famous people who inspired her, and notebook jottings that revealed a self-effacing yet driven young woman, determined to succeed even as she questioned her own dedication and talent. Hers was the self-criticism of an almost-adult, unsure of her abilities but impatient to get on with life, the ultimate test.
"I think I'm going crazy," she wrote in her notebook in an undated entry from her senior year, when, as in other years, she made the dean's list. "This is turning out to be the worst semester ever. I want to be away from here -- finished with classes I don't care about; but having the time to learn about things I want to learn, and doing the things I want to do . . . .
"I know I pile the pressures on myself, but there's so much to think about -- show, portfolio . . . . Sometimes I feel so inadequate with my abilities . . . . I push and push so hard sometimes, only to goof off twice as much the next day. God, what will I do with myself?"
She found inspiration, she wrote on March 9, in the words of Sherry Quares Kasten, an artist whom she had heard lecture at Frostberg State:
"At a time when I feel immensely frustrated and anxious over my show, she was so uplifting and encouraging. To see an artist who is successful and good at her art is such incentive . . . . I hope for the confidence to persevere and one day be a mature, happy, known artist who is still productive . . . .
"The key, according to Ms. Kasten, is to be patient and take everything in little steps. Art isn't supposed to be fun -- It's painful work. But the thing to remember is that as you grow older, your life experience expands and you have a greater visual resource from which to draw. . . . Look, live and know yourself and most importantly, keep working a little at a time . . . . "
Roberta Roper could emphathize with her daughter. She teaches art at a Cheverly parochial school and her own weavings, sketchings and paintings fill the house along with those of Stephanie.
Roper sometimes spoke of her oldest of five children in the present tense as she led a reporter through the two-story Dutch colonial home the family built on five wooded acres a few miles from Upper Marlboro.
"She really has an awful lot of stuff," Roberta Roper said. "Most of the things I'm showing you are current things."
There was the self-portrait hanging in the living room, a class assignment from her senior year. "It is a pensive portrait," her mother said. "Most people didn't think of her in a serious way, but I like it."
Then, in the dining room, there were some pots Stephanie had made and a pen-and-ink drawing of an ear of corn she had drawn in high school.
The upstairs bedroom that Stephanie shared with her sister Sharon, an 18-year-old freshman at Penn State, was untouched. On her brass bed was the Raggedy Ann doll her grandmother had made; above it was a sketch of Stephanie that her mother had made when Stephanie was eight or nine.
The bulk of Stephanie Roper's most recent work, largely drawings, was in the basement. A dozen of her drawings were laid out on a pingpong table and perhaps 20 more were leaning against the wood-paneled walls.
"For an artist not to be seen is kind of an awful thing," her mother said. She pointed to one titled "The Empty Garden." It was one of the two Stephanie had brought home to complete before her death.
"Her teachers decided it was complete enough to show as is," Roberta Roper said. The senior show had gone on, with Stephanie Roper's work displayed posthumously.
Another drawing, of an old woman, done in pencil, water-color and ink, was called "Harvest Waltz." "She really liked the character and depicting the beauty of growing old," her mother said.
The kitchen table was filled with Stephanie's citations and medals: for graduating from high school in the top 5 percent, for perfect attendance in junior high, for being a Rotary International "Outstanding Young American" and for being an "outstanding senior" at college, the last award given to her parents after her death, along with 700 flowers -- one from each of her classmates.
"Everything in Steffi's life was positive," her mother said. "I don't mean this to sound syrupy, but she really left us a legacy of love, not only in her art but in the way she lived. She was a jewel of a daughter. She just bounced into the house, and it was like the sun had started to shine again after a storm. That's the way she was: sunshine.
"The ironic thing is we've lived all over the world, Steffi had been to New York alone and to Florida alone. We moved out here for the freedom and the safety. It's almost like a Greek tragedy. To us, she was the best the world had to offer and for her to meet up with such low life . . . . "
Groping to comprehend the incomprehensible, Roberta Roper had found insight if not comfort in the words of George Eliot, as recalled by her daughter's college adviser in a statement after Stephanie's death: "Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside of itself; it only requires opportunity."
Now, Roberta Roper said: "There's a great hole left in our family, and we'll never be the same people again."
But the Ropers carry on. There are plans to testify on behalf of mandatory sentencing laws in the Maryland General Assembly, and other things, like the Sunday soccer game of their youngest, Peter Roper, 10, for which Roberta Roper excused herself in mid-afternoon.
And there are plans to give Stephanie her due as an artist by making arrangments to show her work at the Washington Archdiocese's Paul VI Gallery in Iverson Mall next spring.
"It's sad she has to get recognition this way, but it's important," her mother said. "She was my other self and such a treasure, I feel I owe it to her."