The Hardest Thing I Ever Did


Lord, guard and guide all those who fly
Through the great spaces in the sky.
Be with them always in the air,
In darkening storms or sunlight fair;
Oh, hear us when we lift our prayer,
For those in peril in the air!

The Air Force Version of Eternal Father Strong to Save

It was an absolutely glorious day recently when I walked by Canandaigua Lake. The sky was a clear azure blue, with just a touch of coolness.

A perfect fall day, and it reminded me so much of September 11, 2001, another seemingly at first perfect – yet not– fall day, we will never forget.

Although we had lived in Washington, D.C. for many years, by 2001 we had moved to the Finger Lakes area of New York, where I had taken a job as alumni director of Hobart College.

I had just arrived at work when the news spread that an airplane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers. We moved to our common area and turned on the television and I was stunned to see the second plane hit, the second tower.  Stunned turned to horror, and rumors began to be spread of attacks around the country.

Both of our daughters had grown up in the DC area and our oldest couldn’t wait to get back there. And as soon as she graduated from William Smith college, she did go back in 2000 to work about one block from the White House. So it was with great trepidation as the news reached us that we heard there had been bombings in the city near the White House.

These stories later proved to be rumors, but at the time in the wake of all that was happening, it was easy to believe the worst. Coupled with my parental concern many alumnae and alumni of our Colleges lived and worked in the New York area and now friends reached out to us for news. Those who were not alive in 2001 cannot imagine the horror of all who feared their for friends and loved ones who may have fallen into harms way. The flaming towers and collapse was so fresh in all our minds.

September 11, 2001 fell on a Tuesday.

It did not dawn on me until later in the week, that I was scheduled to read a major prayer in church. In our church, there is a prayer led by a layperson called, “The Prayers of the People.” It generally is the same from week to week, but there is a section where clergy, various churches and dioceses, the departed, and others are remembered by name.

The prayer came in the mail two days later for me to read on Sunday, September 16. As I looked it over, it became clear to me that I would be praying for those lost not only in the Twin Towers, but also those on the aircraft that went down. Now it is easy to read something like this to oneself. Easy of course is not even close to the right word, given the raw emotions of those days. Still reading it privately is easy, reading it in front of a packed church of about 500 is not.

On that morning, I walked to the lectern and began the prayer with the standard phrases.

“I ask your prayers for God’s people throughout the world; for our Bishop; for this gathering; and for all ministers and people. Pray for the Church.”

Prayers were then given for peace, goodwill among nations, the sick, and others.

All this went well. But as my eyes moved down the page it became clear to me that what was to come would be the hardest thing I had ever done.

I began, “ I ask your prayers for the departed especially :

American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, that crashed into the North and South towers, respectively, of the World Trade Center

American Airlines Flight 77, that crashed into the Pentagon

United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

With each line, with each word, it became harder and harder to read, to speak, to face those people.

Yet I kept on, literally forcing out, in a voice barely audible, the words of healing and comfort I had been given to say.

When I finished I simply said, “Pray for those who have died.”

And there was Silence.


About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in 2001, 9/11, American History, Episcopal Church History, Family History, New York, New York State History, September 11, World Trade Center and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Hardest Thing I Ever Did

  1. Earl Tilford says:

    I was in the second week of my newly accepted professorship at a Grove City College, a Christian college in northwestern Pennsylvania. I, too, recall how beautiful that morning was. My 8:00 am freshman class in Western Civilizations, some 40 students, had been given their first announced quiz, a dozen questions covering the first two lessons. On my way back to my office, I was told a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I wondered how that could happen on such a clear day. I turned on the TV in my office to watch the second plane hit. I knew then this was an act of terrorism. While I was new to full time college teaching, I had been an Air Force intelligence officer for nearly three decades. As the horror of that day unfolded, I was faced with two more freshmen Western Civ classes. The president of the college had given permission to dismiss classes. I decided not to do so. When the students arrive at 1:00 pm for the first afternoon class, I had an overhead slide up with the words from a Catholic hymn, “Be Not Afraid” up for them to read. It has a wonderful line, “When you stand before the gates of Hell and death is at your side, know I go before you all the way.” Promptly at 1:00 pm I called the class to order saying, “Let’s begin with a word of prayer.” I prayed for the people killed that day and their families and for our nation now set on a road to war.” At the conclusion, as some students reached for that back packs to leave I said, “Clear your desks. We have a short quiz and then a lecture titled, “The Early Roman Empire.” I got a few stunned looks. I then said, “Look, the terrorists who attacked us did so to make us change how we live our lives. If we change, they win.” I left that there for a few seconds then said, “They are NOT GOING TO WIN.” Class went ahead as scheduled. A few years later, one of those students had graduated and asked me to be a lunchtime speaker at the Rotary Club in his hometown a few miles away. During the introduction he told the story of that class and added, “I made the first ‘B’ I’d ever made on a test in my life that day…but I learned a very good lesson.”

  2. jenorv says:

    Reblogged this on An American Family and commented:

    September 11, 2018 brings back the memories of that day so long ago and how I had to lead the prayers for those who died that day. It is something I will never forget.

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