After his wife, Carolyn, was killed, Rich Mattingly and their daughter founded the Luv u Project, one of whose activities is the study of mental health issues. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

The joke Rich Mattingly used to tell was that he knew his wife's parents before she did. The funny thing is, it was true.

Their dads worked together at GMAC in Louisville, and when Rich was born, almost 60 years ago, Alex and Betty Combs visited him in the maternity ward. It wasn't until high school that Rich met their daughter Carolyn Combs, one year his junior.

“We never really were apart from that day on,” Rich says.

They became sweethearts, then husband and wife, then parents themselves.

“She was a remarkable human being,” Rich says. “She was the love of my life. I ask myself every day, all day long, ‘How did I lose her?’ ”

You may remember the horrifying story: how Carolyn had called her husband from their Potomac, Md., home to tell him that someone had slashed the tires on her car. How the police went there to investigate, then left. How later that day — Sept. 30, 2014 — a man named Andrew Racca returned to the house, shot and killed Carolyn and set her body on fire. How Racca drove away, crashed his car and committed suicide.

Racca had been caught stealing computer equipment from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in Bethesda, Md., where he worked. Rich was the foundation’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.

“I never dreamt, ever, that the place that I had spent virtually every working day of my life, right out of school, would be her demise,” Rich said. “I worked my entire life — she did, too — to preserve life, to extend life. The fact that something could happen there that would result in her being taken out so violently is beyond my ability to understand, obviously.”

Rich wasn’t sure he would ever understand, but he knew he had to try. And he knew he had to honor Carolyn. She was an accomplished woman, a real estate agent, a past chair of the Maryland Commission for Women, a volunteer who worked with women recently released from prison, a booster of Churchill High School sports.

At Carolyn's memorial service in the University of Maryland chapel more than 500 mourners listened as Rich and their daughter, Christin, promised that the donations pouring in in Carolyn's honor would continue to support such programs. They would launch something else, too — a special project — although they weren't sure what that would be.

In the months after Carolyn's murder, Rich and Christin and Christin's husband, Alex Lewis, would talk about what had happened.

"Mental health became a prevalent part of our dialogues," Rich said. "You have to be sick to have done what he did to her. I still ask myself: Why? I don't know that he ever even met her. Why? Obviously, I guess, to get at me."

But Rich didn’t have any direct interaction with Racca at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, which has a staff of 600. Rich kept returning to the same place: This man must have been mentally ill.

And so the family founded the Luv u Project, a nonprofit group that on Nov. 5 announced that it would team with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to sponsor a symposium on mental health in the workplace. And, with the help of the National Press Foundation, it has created the Carolyn C. Mattingly Award for Mental Health Reporting. The prize is $10,000, the same as for most Pulitzers.

Rich said: “We want to come out of the gate at a level that people will believe we’re serious.”

Rich has thrown himself into the study of mental health in this country, meeting with experts at universities, hospitals and in the government. He’s researching its complexities with the same vigor he devoted to finding a cure for cystic fibrosis. He says he has no preset agenda, just a desire to bring some definition to the mental health conversation, to channel the unruly streams that allow so many people to go without help.

"I have skin in this game," he said. "I've been touched by it. Clearly, something happened that took my child's mother and my wife. And that person had to be — had to be — sick. … If we can help prevent one person from going down that path we've been down, the Luv u Project has been a success."

The foundations's name? It comes from how Carolyn would sign every text: Luv u.

Rich never returned to his job at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. He never spent another night in the house he had shared with Carolyn. For four months, he lived with his daughter and son-in-law in Northern Virginia. Then he moved to an apartment in Gaithersburg. When I visited, the apartment had the spartan, impersonal decor of a model home. Rich has photographs of Carolyn, but he doesn’t display them. It’s too painful.

“I’ve come to peace with not a lot maybe,” he said, “but I have come to peace with the fact that I can’t have her back and that I must try to make a difference for others.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

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