Westmont Magazine Very Public Grief
Like most San Francisco residents, Bob Paskins ’96 awoke Sept. 11 to the horrifying news of the World Trade Center towers burning and buckling. He knew that his father, Jerrold Paskins, was scheduled to be in New York City that day, and he was greatly alarmed.
A phone call to his mother, Inez, confirmed his fears. “Your father could be in trouble,” she said. “We should pray. He’s staying at the Marriott World Trade Center Hotel.”
In desperate anxiety, they waited for a phone call from Jerry that never came. Bob drove to his mother’s Orange County home so they could face the uncertainty together.
“We were panicked, but not grieving,” he recalls. “Every time the phone rang, we hoped it would be him.”
Hungry for information, they tried to find out where Jerry was supposed to be that morning. All they knew was that he was doing a reinsurance audit.
Finally, on Friday, they learned for sure that he had been working in a conference room on the north side of the 94th floor in World Trade Center I, the first one hit.
“We concluded he was in the area struck by the plane and was killed instantly,” Bob explains.
Then the grieving began. “I had never experienced death before. I didn’t know what to do,” Bob says.
The first step was planning a memorial service for Oct. 1. The local media quickly learned about Jerry, and four television stations showed up at Inez’s home asking for an interview.
“We were completely surprised,” Bob said. Not only did all the stations run stories, but so did The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, The Omaha World-Herald, and the Star Tribune in Minnesota.
In the interviews, Inez and Bob boldly confessed their faith in God, which had been such an important part of Jerry’s life. They realized God had given them a wonderful opportunity to speak in the midst of their desolation.
Their most notable experience came with Robert Schuller on an “Hour of Power” program that aired Dec. 23. “It was amazing to be a part of their Christmas show,” Bob says. “We were honored to share who my father was.”
The interview is posted on the program’s Web site, www.hourofpower.org/
As family members of a terrorist victim, Bob and Inez have met California Gov. Gray Davis on several occasions. At events for California families, most of whom lost relatives on one of the four planes, they have found others who are similarly struggling with loss. They have also received information about the compensation package that will provide for Inez financially.
Due to Sept. 11 tragedy and the fact that Jerry was an avid and accomplished runner, Bob was invited to carry the Olympic torch when it traveled through Concord, Calif. “That seemed like such an ideal way to honor my father,” he says. A photo of him with the torch is now framed next to one of his father running.
Not expecting Jerry’s body to be found, Inez decided to place a marker for him. The question was, where? After growing up in Omaha, Neb., Inez and Jerry met at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. They married in 1970 and remained in Omaha where Jerry worked for State Farm Insurance and then Signet Reinsurance Co.
In 1979 the couple moved to Minnesota, where Jerry owned an insurance business for 15 years with two partners. He sold the business in 1994 and moved his family to New Jersey to work with the new owner. After five years he took a job as a reinsurance executive with Devonshire Group in Anaheim Hills and moved to California.
Inez was still considering the best place for a memorial when two Anaheim police officers knocked on her door Nov. 11. Exactly two months after the attacks, she learned that Jerry’s body had been found in the stairwell around the 20th floor.
“It was like the towers fell all over again,” Bob says. “Everything changed. Our reality was altered. Suddenly, a series of questions hit us hard. Had he really been on the 94th floor? Did he suffer? What were his last moments like? Did he really come so close to getting out? It had been much easier to think he had died immediately.”
Bob now believes that his father, who was in top physical condition, headed for the stairs immediately. Tragically, the tower fell before he could reach the ground.
Although the news upset them, Inez and Bob were comforted to learn that some of Jerry’s possessions were recovered. Inez was pleased to get the Black Hills ring she had given him, and Bob has the bicentennial silver dollar his father always carried.
“I just wanted something of my dad’s,” Bob says. “We were very close, and that coin means so much to me.”
Inez decided to bury her husband’s ashes in Omaha where her father still lives. She and Bob spent Thanksgiving there and held a graveside service attended by family and the media.
His father’s death added great stress to a challenging time in Bob’s life. A change in jobs, being forced to move, and a six-week absence from work unsettled him. “There was a time I couldn’t find much peace,” he says. “There was no place where I could be comfortable. I wondered what would happen next.”
Losing so much at one time challenged his faith. “It’s been hard,” he says. “I
wanted to reject God; I tried to turn away from Him. But His provision and his blessings wouldn’t let me go.
“God never went anywhere — in fact, He was the only place I could go for support, the only rock I could cling to. You quickly find where true strength is and why you have to build your faith on a firm foundation. When everything gets stripped away, you need something to remain.”
He tries a second analogy. “I feel like I’ve been in an earthquake. Everything has been knocked down, and it’s all messed up. The foundation is intact, but you have to clear away the rubble and put it back together. The process takes time. God is not allowing me to sweep it back under the rug; He wants me to do the hard work of rebuilding.
“I’m very fortunate to have a mother with strong faith — her faith has spurred mine on. She has faced her own personal battles, including breast cancer two years ago, with prayer.
“When people call mom to comfort her, she ends up ministering to them,” he notes. “At the end of every conversation, she is praying for the caller. That’s her reality. Other ideas of comfort are foreign to her.”
At meetings for families of the victims, Bob thought he could tell which people had faith. “They were in pain, but you could see the peace in their eyes,” he says.
Bob’s first public action after Sept. 11 was attending Westmont’s Homecoming.
“I felt like the gloom at a fun event,” he says. “But it was good to come. I was in a lot of pain, and friends surrounded me. I was never alone. People talked to me constantly and were incredibly welcoming. I was very moved when the class of 1996 made its gift in memory of my father. That was an unexpected honor.”
Less than two weeks after graduating with a degree in communication studies, Bob took a job with a San Francisco insurance company. He now works for Summit Global Partners, an insurance brokering house, managing their construction clientele. He ran track his freshman and sophomore years, served as a resident assistant his junior year, and was communications director for the Westmont College Student Association as a senior. As an intern for KTYD, he worked on-air and did marketing for the Santa Barbara radio station.
Bob still can’t watch anything about Sept. 11 on television. “I just don’t like seeing the buildings fall,” he says. “The time will come when I can face those images.”
Bob understands that his grief is public and shared by the nation. “When people come up to me and express sorrow, they are grieving too and want to express their feelings through our situation. I want to honor that and thank them.”