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Cover of Autumn 2002 - Winter 2003 Issue

The Grails: Friends Forever
Nine Longwood Alumnae Share a Bond in Life and Death

The Grails (from left to right): Lee Larkin, Lucy Flannagan Blevins, Diane Downey, Cheryl Roberts Bradbury, Vicki Doss, Bonnie Stratton Bary and Doris Koehler Ackerson gather on campus for the rededication of Ruffner Hall last spring.

The Grails (from left to right): Lee Larkin, Lucy Flannagan Blevins, Diane Downey, Cheryl Roberts Bradbury, Vicki Doss, Bonnie Stratton Bary and Doris Koehler Ackerson gather on campus for the rededication of Ruffner Hall last spring.

This is a story about love – the love of nine women for Longwood, for each other, and most of all for one whose body eventually gave out but whose spirit never did.

The women – eight members of the Class of 1967 and one from '68 – still remember when they met each other. It was the evening of Sept. 12, 1963, when they were among the residents of third floor Tabb who gathered for their first hall meeting after saying goodbye to their families and unpacking. "That was the beginning of a friendship that grew and became an integral part of each woman's heart," says Vicki "Gretna" Doss, now a middle school teacher in Albemarle County.

They immediately became close friends and called themselves the Grails, after a childhood mispronunciation of the word "girls" by a neighbor of Diane Downey, one of the Grails. Diane started using the word in greeting her new friends. "It's amazing what a good job Longwood did in matching up girls with similar backgrounds and interests," says Cheryl Roberts Bradbury, also a middle school teacher in Albemarle County. The other Grails are Doris Koehler Ackerson, Bonnie Stratton Bary (the '68 grad), Nancy Fey Futch, Lee Larkin and Lucy Flannagan Blevins.

From the beginning, one of the Grails stood out. She had a smile that drew people to her, a positive attitude, and a heart of gold.

"Pat Finn was a planner, an organizer, the cheerleader," says Gretna. "She was the lively, warm, creative one, the Grail responsible for so many of the moments we shared. She craved being with people and meeting new friends. She organized blind dates, helped friends to study, and loved working on projects."

While growing up, Pat, whose father was a Marine Corps aviator, moved often until her family settled in Northern Virginia when she was 15. She graduated from McLean High School, then enrolled at Longwood with her friend Nancy Fey. She was a member of the Judicial Board, Who's Who and Sigma Kappa sorority. After graduation she moved back to Northern Virginia, began teaching 4th grade in the elementary school at the Quantico Marine base, and the next year married her sweetheart, Michael Graves. She earned a master's degree in education from George Mason University in 1972."She was known by her sparkle, her love of life, and, most of all, by her kindness," says Gretna. Says Cheryl: "She had the most engaging smile. She was so warm, so loving, so interested in helping others."

The Grails grew even closer after graduating, meeting several times each year to visit or just have lunch. "Then we shopped for wedding dresses, gave and attended baby showers, shared child-raising stories, and brought husbands together for U.Va. football games," says Gretna. "As the children came and grew, the football weekends gave way to Grails-only beach weekends each fall, which Pat photographed or videotaped. She organized scrapbooks, taught craft lessons, had recipe swaps and led the shopping trips. Pat was full of ideas for new ventures, constantly on the phone with the Grails, garnering ideas for what would come next. As the children reached college age, she began to press her friends to travel more often. Her enthusiasm for life was electric."

Pat left the classroom in 1973 just before the birth of her first daughter, Kristi. Another daughter, Julie, was born four years later. As her daughters grew up, Pat was their room mother in elementary school, Brownie leader and team mom for their gymnastics team.

In August 1992 Pat was diagnosed with breast cancer. She didn't let it slow her down. "Her indomitable spirit was up to the challenge," says Gretna. "In the midst of chemo, and sporting a wig, she drove her van to Nags Head for the annual fall weekend with the Grails. Her doctor made arrangements for her tests to be made at the hospital in Elizabeth City, and early in the day so she could shop."

For the Grails' 30th anniversary in 1993, Pat designed a
T-shirt that featured the Longwood Rotunda and the line "For friendships that are golden" from the Longwood song Joan of Arc (also known as Among the Gleaming Columns, its opening verse), which she and her classmates loved to sing during their Longwood days.

After her health improved enough for her to work again, Pat returned to teaching in 1997, some 24 years after leaving the classroom. She taught American history at Washington Irving Middle School in Springfield, where she had spent many hours as a volunteer when her daughters were students there.

When Cheryl's daughter was married in 1999, Pat helped Gretna with the flower arrangements. "As Pat and I were working on the arrangements, she talked about the dream weddings she had in mind for her own girls," Gretna says. "She asked me ‘When Kristi and Julie get married, will you do this for them?'"

Pat last taught in June 2000, finishing out that school year. The next month she and Michael, along with Nancy Futch and her husband, took a 17-day trip to the Virgin Islands in which they rented a sailboat and hopped from island to island.

"Pat couldn't go out on the islands because she was in pain the whole time, so she stayed on the boat while they docked at various places and painted scenes of what she saw on postcards," says Cheryl. "She could barely walk, but she'd promised Bonnie and Doris that she'd go to Hawaii with them. She got off a plane from the Virgin Islands at 11 p.m. and got back on a plane for Hawaii at 4 a.m. the next morning. They pushed her in a wheelchair all over Hawaii."

While she was in Hawaii, Michael got a call from her doctors indicating there was a "hot spot" on her spine that had been found during an MRI before her sailing trip. She returned from Hawaii on July 30, then a few days later went to Georgetown University Hospital for tests. On Aug. 4, nearly eight years to the day after her initial diagnosis of breast cancer, she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. As is common to this disease, the metastases were found in the bone, causing pain. Over the next four months she had to be hospitalized at least a half-dozen times.

The Grails' last fall beach excursion with Pat, in October that year, featured a practical and poignant twist. "Pat was too sick to go to the beach, so we brought the beach to Pat," says Cheryl. "We took a big saucer, the kind you put under plants, and filled it with sand and shells and a photo collage of all of us, and gave it to Pat. We didn't have a photo of all of us together at the beach, but Lee, who did the collage, used different pictures of each of us and made it look like we were all together."

In her final days, Pat had a visible reminder of her alma mater. "Lee had carved the Longwood Rotunda logo into a pumpkin and gave it to Pat," says Cheryl.

"At the end, even though we were living in four states – Nancy in Annapolis, Maryland, Doris in Dallas, and Diane in Manteo, North Carolina – we would go every few weeks to see her," she continued. "The last time we saw her was the Friday after Thanksgiving (in 2000) when everyone but Doris, because of the distance, gathered in Richmond, then went to her house. She died exactly a week later."

Pat died Dec. 1, 2000. She was 55. At her funeral the Grails sang Joan of Arc, Cheryl gave the eulogy, and a poem Gretna wrote about Pat and her smile, Pat's Light, appeared in the program from the service. "We sang at the funeral at the request of Pat's daughters," says Cheryl. "They would ask us to sing each time we came to visit because it seemed to relax her and bring a brief respite from the pain."

The one they most like to sing, Joan of Arc, is particularly fitting for the Grails. It ends with "Oh Longwood, our own Longwood, we all give thanks to you / For friendships that are golden, for goodly knowledge too / For memories we will cherish our whole lives through."

That isn't the end of the story. The Grails decided to honor Pat's memory with a Longwood scholarship. "Before Pat died, I suggested a scholarship to Michael, in lieu of flowers, and he said she would have loved it," says Cheryl. Michael contacted the Alumni office, which set up the Patricia Finn Graves Memorial Fund.

They also raised money through selling copies of the postcards of the watercolors that Pat had done in the Virgin Islands shortly before she died, which she painted simply to give to friends. The front of each of the eight cards (also given as favors to guests at Kristi's wedding) bears a different scene, with personal remembrances written on the back by friends and family.

"We raised the money in about 18 months," says Cheryl.

The scholarship, for future teachers, was awarded for the first time during the 2004-2005 academic year to Maryanna O'Neill of Springfield, now a sophomore, who plans to teach elementary school. Preference is given to graduates of West Springfield High School (where Pat's daughters went), or, if no qualified candidate can be found from that school, to students from Northern Virginia.

Just as Pat had asked, the Grails did the table and flower arrangements for the weddings of her daughters, Kristi in October 2002 and Julie in July 2003. The second wedding unexpectedly gave them a chance to fulfill another of Pat's wishes.

"When Julie got married, she gave each of us a small photo album," says Cheryl. "In Pat's notes in her day planner, under things to do in the future, it said ‘Grails – New T-shirt, "Friends for 40," 1963-2003,' and underneath that she had written ‘Today Show/Oprah,' meaning she wanted us to go to either the Today Show or Oprah for our 40th anniversary. The part about the Today Show/Oprah had been whited out when we first saw it, since Julie didn't know what it meant. We didn't find out until we called Michael after our trip to New York and he said ‘Did Julie tell you what was in the day planner?' It was as if Pat was directing us from above."

In lieu of their annual trip to the beach in the fall of 2003, the Grails went to New York City and appeared on The Today Show on the morning of Oct. 4. They took along a banner they had made that read "Friends for Forty 1963-2003 Longwood College." While holding the banner just behind the fence in the crowd outside Rockefeller Center, they were interviewed live on national television by Chris Cimino, a local TV meteorologist who takes Al Roker's place on Saturday.

"The camera panned us five times before we were interviewed on the air," Cheryl says. "After he saw our banner, Chris Cimino walked over to us and started asking us questions, then told us he wanted to interview us live after the commercial break." In the live interview, he asked Gretna "How'd you guys meet?" and she replied "At Longwood College in Farmville, Virginia." Then, motioning toward Cheryl, he said she was "responsible for getting everyone together." Holding the microphone in front of her, he said "So, you're bringing everyone together one way or the other?" Cheryl smiled and said "One way or the other."

As she has done since Pat's death, Cheryl took Pat's hat to the Big Apple, and in the live interview with Chris Cimino she mentioned that it belonged to a friend. The floppy white straw hat has been everywhere the Grails have been, including New England, Charleston and Savannah.

"Pat's hat is just a summer hat that I got after she died," says Cheryl. "I went to Europe with Pat and Nancy when we were 21. We threw coins into the fountain in Rome; according to the legend, you're supposed to return if you do that. Pat's goal was always to return to Italy. Even though she got back to Europe (Switzerland and Austria) with her daughters, she never got back to Italy. But, five Grails – Lucy, Lee, Vicki, Bonnie and myself – and another of Pat's friends took a two-week trip to Europe in the summer of 2001, and I wore Pat's hat and, when visiting Rome, threw coins into the fountain."

Interestingly, both of Pat's daughters (the younger is now Julie Mann; Kristi has retained her maiden name) work in fields related to breast cancer, and both say their career choices were influenced by their mother's illness.

"I was laid off from my previous job, as a marketing assistant, only 15 days after she died, since the company was folding," says Julie, who lives in Sterling. "My current job kind of fell into my lap, but you could say that my Mom steered it into my lap. About 80 percent of my time is spent on the Race for the Cure; I travel to races all over the country. It's weird, but with a lot of things that have happened since my Mom's death, I feel like she is directing things from above."

Kristi, who has a Ph.D. from Virginia Tech, started a research-track faculty position this May at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University, where her mother was once a patient. Her job in the Cancer Control Program involves working on grants related to genetic testing for breast cancer. She had previously done post-doctoral research at the University of Kentucky on quality-of-life issues for cancer patients, primarily those with breast cancer.

"I was a sophomore at James Madison University majoring in psychology and had already decided I wanted to learn more about health psychology when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer," says Kristi, who lives in Alexandria. "Watching how well she handled her treatment inspired me to learn more about it. When her disease recurred in 2000, I was applying for an internship in clinical psychology. I had a moment when I wasn't sure I still wanted to work with cancer patients, but then I decided that no matter what the outcome of her recurrence, the experience would provide me with a broader perspective in my work. Her illness made me more appreciative of the struggles that my patients and their families go through, which I hope comes across in how I work with people."

Kristi had considered taking a similar job in Philadelphia, where her husband is from, but that didn't work out, and she ended up back in the Washington, D.C., area. "I think Mom had a hand in guiding her back to the area," says Julie. Told of her comment, Kristi chuckled and said "Yeah, she's pulling all sorts of strings."

In the wake of Pat's death, the Grails have grown even closer, they say. "We have shared the joys of weddings, the births of children and grandchildren, career achievements, and children's accomplishments," says Gretna. "As we have aged, the challenges have increased and our get-togethers have become more intense. But we are always there for each other. Many of us talk weekly, ‘The Grails' is an e-mail distribution list on each computer, and sub-groups shop, attend cultural events or travel together. The entire group is together at least twice a year; Doris travels from Dallas whenever she can. Like the song Among the Gleaming Columns says, we cherish our memories, and this friendship is golden – to be remembered our whole lives through."

Bonnie Stratton Bary is retired after working as an instructional coordinator with the Prince William County schools, Lee Larkin's job with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science involves educating science teachers, and Doris Koehler Ackerson, Nancy Fey Futch and Lucy Flannagan Rankin taught before having children. Nancy now works for a manufacturing firm. Diane Downey Dement has moved back to Edinburg, Va., her hometown, where she works in a boutique. Three are grandmothers. Their long-term friendship was featured in an article in July in the newspaper in Naples, Florida, where Ackerson lives part of the year. "People are amazed that we've remained so close over all these years," says Cheryl.

The petite, one-time cheerleader with the warm smile and the generous spirit is never far from their minds and hearts. "For some reason, all of us Grails associate sunrises and sunsets with Pat – because of her artistic eye, or maybe because she liked to be on the beach at those times," says Gretna. "Due to her illness, Pat couldn't donate organs, but she did donate her corneas, so someone else can view sunrises and sunsets through Pat's eyes."