Saint Michael's College Magazine

A Shared Journey

Bonded in Loss, Two Classmates Found Their Way Together - by Doug Wilhelm

Their paths kept crossing.

As Linda Limburg Fergus '83 and Margaret Pitt Iskyan '83 were each raising two children of the same ages in the same town in Connecticut, and their husbands were working at the same investment-services firm in the World Trade Center in New York, it was inevitable that they would be living somewhat parallel lives.

It had been that way since they had started at Saint Michael's College in 1979. Back then, during the first week of their first year, they had both met their future husbands, Ed Fergus '83 and John Iskyan '82. Both later moved with their young families to Wilton, a suburb on the New Haven commuter line to Manhattan. Ed and John shared a love for the outdoors; they'd also often share rides to the train station on their way to work at Cantor Fitzgerald. Margaret and Linda took their kids to the same hockey lessons. And when the 2001 school year started in the fall, Shannon Fergus and Peter Iskyan, then 12, were both seventh graders at Middlebrook School in Wilton, while Tom Fergus and Carolynn Iskyan, then nine, were in fifth grade at theCider Mill School.

"We've always said that clearly our lives were meant to run parallel," Margaret Iskyan says of herself and Linda. "And, sadly, we were meant to experience this journey together."

The journey she means began that September, on a Tuesday morning. Ed was at work on the 104th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, John on the 105th. When Linda first learned that something terrible had happened, she called Margaret and asked, "Have you heard anything?"

"Then somebody from Cantor called me," Linda recalls. "They said, 'Whatever you're hearing, the chances of them being alive are slim to none. Nobody's making it down.'"

"That's when it all began," says Margaret.

John Iskyan and Ed Fergus were among three alumni the Saint Michael's College community lost on 9/11. The third was John McErlean '84, a partner at Cantor Fitzgerald, a resident of Larchmont, NY, and a father of four children—Ryan, Timothy, Mary Kate, and Allie Maeve. Ed and John McErlean knew each other well; their desks were across from one another at the global financial-services firm's headquarters in the North Tower, where Cantor Fitzgerald lost more people that day than any other organization.

"It Just Blossomed"

Even before September 11, John Iskyan and Ed Fergus's lives had been running somewhat parallel as well. Both young men earned acceptance to St. Mike's through the Delayed Admissions Program (DAP). From 1970 to 1980, the innovative DAP offered admission to selected applicants if they successfully completed two summer courses. Thanks to DAP, by the time their first year started, both John and Ed, who knew each other only as acquaintances in college, had already bonded with a number of classmates. Most of those bonds would stay strong for the rest of their lives.

Their group made sure to meet each year at the Stone Hut, a vintage lodge atop Mount Mansfield.

It was at the start of the 1979–80 year, John's second on campus and Ed's first, that they met the women they would marry.

"He already knew about downtown, where to go and what to do, and he was going to show me," laughs Linda, who met Ed her first day of college. They didn't start dating till October—"we just hung out with a group of friends," she says. "He had a really good core of friends from the summer program, and it just blossomed from there."

"St. Mike's seems to somehow instill or forge long-standing relationships in people," muses Bart Wenrich '82, who was John's buddy from the DAP summer on. "For us, that program kind of solidified things. We formed friendships that lasted all four years of school."

John and Bart's core group was an athletic, adventurous bunch of guys. They went on hiking and camping trips, then skied at Stowe in the winter. For years after graduation, the guys kept those outdoor gatherings going. They made sure, in particular, to meet each year at the Stone Hut, a rustic, 1936-vintage lodge atop Mount Mansfield that is run by the State of Vermont and Stowe Mountain Resort.

"John and the group would spend a night at the hut, and ski down the next day in fresh snow," Bart recalls. "That was an annual ritual. I was a novice skier that tried to keep up with those guys—and generally not that well!"

Though Margaret and John also met during her first week, they didn't started dating until the next Valentine's Day.

"We were in classes together. I used to invite him up for tea after sociology class—how funny is that?" Margaret says with her distinctive bright laugh. "The dorm I lived in, Lyons Hall, had a Valentine's Day party. I invited John, and there was a fire alarm. We were out on the quad after the alarm, and that's where we had our first kiss."

Margaret and John stayed together through college. So did Linda and Ed, mostly. "There were those ups and downs," Linda says: "we broke up a couple of times, but we were together." When she and Ed got married three years after graduation, several dozen of their Saint Michael's friends and classmates were there.

"We're still all really good friends," she says. "We're like a family. They're always checking on you. Especially after 9/11, they were all there to help."

Two weeks after his graduation, John moved to New York to start work at Cantor Fitzgerald, and he and Margaret broke up for a little over two years. Then the couple reconnected at two successive weddings of John's old roommates. That October, when Margaret drove from Boston to Vermont for the annual Craftsbury Common Banjo Contest, John was also there. That's when they agreed to start dating again.

Soon after, John flew to Logan Airport for $19.99 on People Express. "He got off the plane with a dozen red roses. I had a bottle of champagne, and we went out to dinner that night," Margaret says. "We said okay, we're back together, and we're back together for good; but let's take it slow, so not to freak out our friends and family. And we were engaged"—her laugh erupts again—"a month later."

"That's slow enough!" Linda says.

"We were married nine months after that, at St. Mike's," Margaret adds. "We had 180 people there. Father Joe McLaughlin married us."

"John used to say it was fate," she says. "That we were meant to go to St. Mike's, and we were meant to meet and get married."

Their reception was at the Top Notch Resort, in Stowe.

"I Called You Right After"

To both Margaret and Linda, the parallel events in their lives now seem like things that were meant to happen. Because when the time came that each of them needed someone, they would each be there.

"If you look back," says Linda, "if you just follow the path, it's like there were stepping stones. To prepare us."

At St. Mike's, Margaret shared a group of friends with Ed but didn't know Linda well. Their pattern of connection began shaping up when their husbands were working at Cantor Fitzgerald. The two men, Linda says, "were cut out of the same cloth. They both skied; both hikers. They just loved the outdoors." Both were energetic, generous souls who made friends easily, and kept them long-term. "There wasn't a task he wouldn't tackle," Linda says of her husband.

Both couples began their married lives in Norwalk, Connecticut. "Then Margaret moved to Wilton, and then I did," says Linda. "I would run into her. I saw her at a restaurant; we ran into each other checking out a kindergarten for our kids at a Catholic school. It was just, 'Hey, how are you doing?' We'd see each other at the ice-skating rink, and when I moved to Wilton I'd see her there. It's weird, when you think back and look at it. We always say it was life, preparing us."

When that Tuesday morning in September came, Linda isn't sure how soon the two of them talked again. But Margaret remembers.

She'd been given a sedative after the news first hit, and had gone to sleep on a couch. Margaret is the youngest of five siblings, the rest of whom live in Massachusetts. Within two hours of the news that American Airlines Flight 11, the first of two airliners that would be flown into the 110-story Twin Towers, had hit the North Tower at 8:46 a.m., her brother and her three sisters were on their way by car to Margaret's home.

"I woke up and they were all there," she recalls, "and I said, 'You guys know something.' So they sat down and said, 'Linda Fergus just called and said, Nobody anywhere above the crash made it out.'" "I called you right after that," Margaret says to Linda.

All 658 Cantor Fitzgerald employees working on floors 101 through 105 in the North Tower that day lost their lives.

"Thank God We Had Each Other"

Soon after, Margaret and Linda began going together to meetings at a Center for Hope, for families in illness and loss, at the Family Centers in nearby Darien, and to a support group in Greenwich for spouses of 9/11 victims.

"We did that for a year, at least," Margaret says. "Once a week."

"The kids did art projects, things like that," Linda adds.

"I've always said I wouldn't wish this one anyone," Margaret reflects, "but thank God I had Linda to go through it with, and Linda had me. Because it's such a unique experience that... nobody else..." She searches for words.

"There were moments when I was not functioning, and I would call Linda and she'd get it," Margaret says. "And vice versa: she'd call me and I'd get it. Thank God we had each other."

The Saint Michael's community also responded fast. "Right away, Father Brian [Cummings '86] was calling us," Linda recalls. "The president was in touch right away, too."

"Thank God I had Linda to go through it with, and Linda had me."

Margaret and Linda's kids got involved with Tuesday's Children, an organization that since 2001 has promoted healing and recovery among the family members, including some 3,000 children, of 9/11 victims. They've done Tuesday's Children service projects in Costa Rica and in post-Katrina New Orleans. Both Shannon Fergus and Carolynn Iskyan attended Project Common Bond, an eight-day "peacebuilding and leadership" camp for teenagers around the world who have lost a loved one to terrorism.

Within a month of the tragedy, the college organized a memorial mass, presided over by Fr. Brian, at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Wilton. Saint Michael's invited all its alumni to come.

"A huge number showed up," Linda says.

Soon after, Marc A. vanderHeyden, the college's then-president, and his wife traveled to Wilton bearing proclamations in calligraphy, which they presented to the families of each alumnus lost on 9/11. The college also offered full scholarships to any children of each family who wished to attend Saint Michael's.

Both of Ed and Linda's children graduated from Saint Michael's: Shannon in 2011, Tom Fergus this year. The Iskyans chose a different path. Pete Iskyan graduated in 2011 from Ithaca College. His sister Carolynn is a senior this fall at Savannah College of Art and Design.

"The Bonds That Are Made"

And through the years since that morning when everything changed, Linda and Margaret have been steadfast friends. Both have since moved back to Norwalk, where they live quite near each other. Every week or two they get together for dinner. They often vacation together as well, now that the kids are grown.

"We do girl trips," Linda quips.

"We've been to the Caribbean, Napa Valley, Arizona, Vermont," Margaret adds.

"We do a lot," Linda says. "We're more like sisters."

They've gone to reunions together, too. And this June, they attended their 30th.

"I think Saint Michael's is a really unique community," Margaret reflects. "Some of my other friends, back 30 years ago, were saying, ‘Wow—it's amazing how many friends you have from college.' It's like a big family. My brother went to the college; I was in seventh grade when we dropped him off, and I said, ‘I don't know why, but this is where I'm supposed to go to school.' And out of all our friends, almost everybody has a sibling or a child at St. Mike's. It's a very compassionate, caring school."

In May 2011, almost a decade after that September morning, Linda and her children endowed the Ed Fergus Scholarship at the college. Its aim is to support an entering student who needs a little help financially, just as Ed Fergus did academically when St. Mike's gave him a chance through the Delayed Admission Program.

As his own 30th reunion approached, Bart Wenrich, John Iskyan's pal since their DAP summer, decided he needed to do something that would honor his friend's memory.

"John was a very enthusiastic supporter of St. Mike's," Bart explains. "He was very focused on giving back and participating in school affairs, and as an alumnus he was trying to talk a lot of us into getting involved and participating—which quite frankly I was pretty lax about.

"He would drag me to these Wall Street [alumni] functions," says Bart, who went into film production after college, and most recently was a producer and director on the TV series Gossip Girl. "I'd be the only guy not in a suit, and I'd be saying, 'Okay John, can we go now, get a burger and a couple of beers?'

"When he passed away, I was thinking about how important he was to all of us. He symbolized all the good things that St. Mike's has to offer: a sense of place and community and long-lasting friendship, and the bonds that are made there, over and above the academic experience, that make the college really unique and special. John recognized that value."

As co-chair of his class's 30th reunion, Bart decided to launch a campaign to endow a scholarship in his friend's memory. "The fact that it was in John's name got people's attention and made it easier," he says. The fundraising took two years, but "we got some momentum, and we met the goal."

"Reflecting on John made me come to my own appreciation of the experience that I had at St. Mike's," Bart sums up. "At the end of the day, maybe this will help another deserving student afford to have the enrichment we had—not only academically, but in life."

At the 30th reunion of the Class of '83 this past June, Ed's friend Dave Fahey organized a golf outing to benefit the Ed Fergus Scholarship. "Thirty-three attendees in the rain," Linda says. "Came from near and far. It was a beautiful tribute to Ed and our scholarship."

"Live It to the Fullest"

There is one last piece to this story, a final stepping stone.

Margaret will never be sure exactly why (she believes it's because her husband made it to the roof of the tower that morning) but John's body was recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Center and was returned to his family.

The rock face bears John's name, the dates of his birth and death, and something he often said: "Life is short. Live it to the fullest."

On Memorial Day 2002, eight months after the tragedy, Margaret, her family, much of John's family, and John's core group of Saint Michael's buddies gathered to bring his ashes to the top of Mount Mansfield. That, Margaret says, is where John's soul was most free. They also brought a 75-pound stone that she had selected and had inscribed for her husband's memorial.

The rock has a white-agate seam running across it top to bottom, almost like a ski trail. Margaret had John's signature incised along that line. The rock face also bears his name, the dates of his birth and death, and something John often said: "Life is short. Live it to the fullest."

The group also had John and Ed's prayer cards. They planned to drive up the Mountain Road to the Stone Hut, at 3,550 feet. But this being Vermont, there was still snow on the mountain that Memorial Day, and the road was closed.

So the whole party hiked up the Nose Dive ski trail to the top. John's guys took turns carrying his stone. Seventy-five pounds. "That," Bart says, "was one heavy rock.

"It was an honor to be part of that," he adds. "It was beautiful, a great tribute to John. It speaks to how important that mountain was to him."

The party spread John's ashes, then placed his and Ed's prayer cards beneath the stone. Linda and Margaret have since gone up there together, several times, to visit. Their kids have gone, too. The day before returning to campus for the 30th reunion, Margaret and Linda made the journey again.

"You've got to hike down. It's getting a little overgrown," Linda says, and the two friends agree on this, too. "But the stone is so neat."

"Yes," Margaret says. "It's beautiful."

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