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Sharing Stories and 9/11

Karen Santry- Photo by Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times

When I began sharing my stories through writing and speaking, it opened the door for others to come forward and share theirs with me. I am reminded how sharing stories has the ability to connect us in ways we could never imagine.

This blog post my first guest writer. Her name is Karen Santry, an amazing women and artist. I met her in my writer’s class, and I am in awe of her experiences, and her talent in art and writing. Karen Santry lives and has a studio in Westbeth Artists Housing in New York, where she says, “Every day is a gift.” Her work can be seen on Take a look. She's amazing and I am so delighted to know her. Here is a brief biography. Please check out her website.

Karen Santry grew up in Holland and New Canaan, Connecticut. She attended Skidmore College, and the University of Pennsylvania grad school for her masters.

She went on to teach at Silvermine Guild of Art, Yale University, and also has 40 years in the Illustration Department at Fashion Institue of Technology. She is a Fine Arts Painter and Illustrator, who was represented by the Allan Stone Gallery for 30 years. She recently had one of her drawings in the Whitney Museum Biennial.

Karen Santry shared this story in our writer’s group on September 11, 2022. I have waited a year's time to share it with you.

Michael Noeth - My Student

By Karen Santry

He was smaller than the other male students and shouted with enthusiasm at unexpected times.

“Hey, this is a really cool project - I am glad they let me out of the looney bin!”

As a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, I would pause and say nothing. After all, I had to manage the classroom and not encourage outbursts as an accepted part of classroom culture. But inside, I smiled.

This student’s name was Michael Noeth and he would stay after class wanting to help me clean up the room. I rather welcomed the help and was cautiously stunned at his unbridled enthusiasm about being in an art class. He seemed perfectly comfortable talking to me as an equal. And, I must admit, it felt ok.

One day after class, Michael insisted I meet his grandmother. I could imagine nothing more unusual. When I told him, “We don’t do that here.” he told me I’d love her, that she was an actress.

This didn’t help his case with me. In my teaching career, I liked to keep things as simple as possible. An actress-grandmother would be complicated, I was sure. But Michael persisted in wearing me down with the stories of his four-foot-eight powerhouse of a grandmother, Muriel Kuhn.

After hearing she was responsible for insisting FIT let him in after a four-year stay in the mental hospital, I realized I owed a debt of gratitude for Michael’s presence in my life. When we did meet, I was surprised to find that, except for her height, she resembled our recent remembrance of Queen Elizabeth of England. Tiny and outspoken, she was fantastic, sharp, warm, and witty. She was overjoyed. I appreciated her grandson.

After graduation, Michael’s art improved tremendously. When he “unexpectedly” found himself in my neighborhood, he would call, asking to stop by. Usually, I said yes. Boy was he fun. Outrageously appreciative of my fantasy apartment, he was so eager to learn from an elder. I showed him my studio, suggesting someday he, too, would have a studio. We talked for hours when he told me his

grandmother and mother were kicking him out of their shared apartment. He had one month to get a job! What? They had seemed so nice.

“My mom is not so nice,” he replied. “My grandmother raised me.’’

He revealed he wanted to go to the Navy. I turned in shock! FIT was not known for sports. Their strength was in turning out illustrators, not soldiers. And Michael drew magnificently. He was a fine painter too. I had to know he knew he had choices and fast. So, we arranged for him to have a one-person exhibit of his artwork in SoHo. To my delight and his surprise, it sold out!

Sadly, one sold-out art show was not good enough for Michael’s mother. She wanted him out! The next time Michael came to visit, he said he was going to join the Navy! “What?” I exclaimed, “You are way too small!’’ He said he had investigated it, and it was based on weight, not height. I still didn’t know what he was thinking. He was slight.

Next thing I knew, I heard him rummaging around in my toolbox. Unlike him to go through my belongings without permission. Having found what he was looking for, he jumped up happily. I was suspicious of what he was about to do but said nothing. He was a good kid. Four hours later, he returned to my apartment and shouted proudly: “I passed!”

“Yup, Santry, I put these washers I found in your box between my toes” Though his enthusiasm was contagious, II was frightened for him. “You could get hurt!” “C’mon, Prof. It’s not like we’re at war.” And with those words, he persuaded me, and we jumped up and down in glee. Recalling the way he spoke out of turn in class whenever he was excited or inspired was the only concern still nagging me, and I kept it to myself.

Michael Noeth entered the US Navy and enrolled twice out of enthusiasm. He sailed on the USS Russell, a guided missile destroyer, where he won 11 awards as they circled the Persian Gulf in extremely dangerous conditions. On deck, he painted in his spare time and when each tour returned to New York, he sold out shows in SoHo!

Mind you, I’m a professional artist, and I have never sold-out SoHo shows. I say this because it still fascinates me that Michael’s depictions of Naval life seemed to be an unending source of curiosity for the people who bought them.

No matter where he was, Michael called me with the “Paint color of the day!” This was a made-up event where in we celebrated our mutual love of oil paints, and he would briefly catch me up on his adventures. This lasted eight years, and I never tired of his calls. On the contrary, I loved them.

Remade from the former Bell Telephone labs, I live in Westbeth Artists Housing in the West Village. On September 11th, I was having coffee, awaiting Michael’s call from the Pentagon, where he had become an art director. Suddenly I heard an airplane flying much too close to my building, and I jumped out of my seat and ran into the hall where I saw the plane crash into the World Trade building. I yelled to my fellow artists to get up fast and get to the roof! From the rooftop, we screamed at the sight of One World Trade Center falling.

Falling to our knees in a combination of prayer and despair, our arms uplifted we gestured skyward to please stop! We saw people jumping from the building, and we screamed louder and more.

Still, Michael called me. “OMG, do you know what’s happening here?”

“I know, terrorists!” he said.

“But, Michael, who would not like us?”

The phone went dead. I redialed him but there was no answer. I tried again and again.

The next thing I knew, Charlie, who had an apt on the roof, came over to me and put his arms around me. “Karen,” he said softly. “The Pentagon was hit. We are worried about your friend Michael. You know, the little fellow in the Navy uniform who likes to visit you and draw the model with us?”

My friends at Westbeth had become enamored with Michael too. His bright white chokers drew all eyes to him. That Charlie had called him little and so endearingly brought me back to that first moment Michael had told me he wanted to join the Navy; how vulnerable he’d seemed to me.

With the help of the bereaved grandmother, I managed to invite the Navy Rear Admiral H. Kirk Unruh JR, who brought 700 in-uniform Navy men to the Auditorium at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where Michael and I had originally met. Admiral of the Atlantic Ocean, Unruh spoke for 45 minutes on the merits of officer Michael North. Then I spoke.

I was awarded Michael Noeth’s Purple Heart and a flag that flew at the Pentagon, on the following 9/11.

For years, I refused to own my grief about losing Michael. My greatest grief help came from Tanya Detrik’s book, THIS IS GRIEF. Though Tanya lost her spouse, her book made me realize that Michael’s friendship, all the phone calls, and the love

of the Navy they’re all part of me that stays with me. After reading Tanya’s book, I embraced the beauty of it all alongside the tragedy. I’m a better person for having found the courage to embrace the horror because with it comes a richness of relationship, I’d never realized.

Professor Karen Santry

September 11, 2022

I thought that the target audience for my book, This is Grief, was only for those who had lost a spouse or a partner, as was the case for Karen’s sister. How surprised I was that it could be more than that. Stories have the power to heal in ways you can’t imagine.


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