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University of Missouri

Message of Love

A Mizzou alumnus helps parents grieve for their own lost Tiger.

Lucy and Ron WIllett

After Lucy and Ron Willett of Walnut Shade, Mo., lost their son, John, BA ’95, in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, their community rallied to support them. A local artist painted a pre‐9/11 New York skyline, which is mounted on their barn. Lucy holds a flag that U.S. Army veteran and local journalist Jerry Jacob, BJ ’88, flew over Afghanistan in John’s honor. Photo by Rob Hill.

John Willett, BA ’95, called home once or twice a week. When his parents, Ron and Lucy, would return to their Springfield, Mo., house, they’d find his message on the answering machine: “Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad. Just wanted to say I love you. Bye.”

They’d listen, smile, then delete the message. There would always be more.

But after Sept. 11, 2001, the messages stopped.

John, 29, worked on the 101st floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower. His remains were never found.

An errant keystroke put John on the list of survivors for the first week after the attack, but Lucy had her doubts. If he was alive, he’d have called. He’d be on her machine.

When they learned the truth, they tried desperately to un‐erase his messages. Ron even spoke with someone at the FBI for help. He just needed to hear his son’s voice again.

The years since have largely been spent preserving John’s memory. There’s a bench with his name on it at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, where John earned a master’s degree. Ron and Lucy now live in Walnut Shade, Mo., and they’ve hung a framed second master’s degree from the University of Notre Dame, awarded to John posthumously, on their wall.

Then there’s the American flag.

The flag flew from the side of a medical helicopter over Afghanistan Sept. 11, 2011. John never knew the person who flew it.

Jerry Jacob, a reporter for a Springfield TV station, met Ron and Lucy a year after John’s death. At the time, the Willetts weren’t going to talk to the media, but something about Jacob, BJ ’88, endeared him to the grieving couple. They let him travel with them to New York for the one‐year remembrance of 9/11. Although a decade older than John, the Willetts grew to think of Jacob as a son.

The feelings were mutual. Inspired by what he’d seen in New York, Jacob joined the U.S. Army in 2007 at age 42 when the maximum age limit was briefly raised. The Willetts were the first people he told besides his own parents.

Jacob served five years as a combat medic, completing tours in Iraq, Haiti and Afghanistan. In 2012 at a 9/11 ceremony in Springfield, he presented the Willetts with the flag he’d flown for John. That kind of compassion helps the healing, Ron says.

But if you could look through the Willetts’ home, you’d find another memory. The FBI told Ron they can’t recover deleted messages from digital answering machines, though one day they might learn how. So in the Willetts’ front bedroom, in the closet, on the shelf, sits the machine. Waiting.