By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 22, 2004; Page A01
SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- In the tiny townhouse he rents behind an office park, Donn Marshall unfurls an armful of papers on the living room couch. They are plans for a house to be built on land he has purchased nearby.
Modeled on an 18th-century Irish country house, it will have bedrooms for Marshall's two children, Drake and Chandler, and room for as many as six guests -- everything that Marshall and his wife, Shelley, ever dreamed of.
But it will go ahead without her. Shelley Marshall, a Defense Intelligence Agency budget analyst, was among the 184 people who died Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists flew an airplane into the Pentagon.
"I think it should be almost like a monument," Marshall said, as he smoothed wrinkles from the house plans. "In a sense, it's Shelley's money."
The Marshall family expects to receive about $2 million from the federal fund created to compensate the injured and the families of the 2,976 people killed that day at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York. Although the money will not take away the grief that has diminished only slightly in 21/2 years, Marshall said it will free him to work full time on the charitable foundation he established in his wife's name -- his way of fighting back.
The fund, established by Congress to protect the airlines from billion-dollar lawsuits, has reached the family of almost every victim. Fund administrator Kenneth R. Feinberg, a Washington lawyer, said that by last month's final deadline, 2,924 families -- 98 percent -- had surrendered their right to sue the airlines in return for an average award of just under $2 million.
But many who took the settlement wrestled with "survivor's guilt," said Larry Shaw, director of Northern Virginia Family Service, whose counselors are working with many families of Pentagon victims. "They felt that they were benefiting from the loss of someone they loved."
Shaw said family service counselors tell families that the settlement is part of their recovery process. "And part of the recovery is being able to fulfill some dreams that you had in your life," he said.
Shelley Marshall was a woman of passionate and varied interests. She put together family scrapbooks and hosted Victorian-style tea parties with her mother-in-law, Phyllis Marshall. She loved to spot hawks while out walking. Shortly before her death, she had begun to collect knickknacks decorated with dragonflies.
On Sept. 11, Shelley and Donn had commuted in separate cars to the Pentagon from their then-home in Charles County, with Donn carrying the children. Together, they said goodbye to Drake and Chandler at the Pentagon day-care center. Then Shelley headed to her office in the southwest wing of the Pentagon, and Donn drove to his Crystal City office, where he also worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Moments after the plane buried itself in the Pentagon, Donn drove back to the blazing structure to search frantically for his family. The children were unharmed. He couldn't find Shelley.
Three days later, he got the news that she was dead.
The words of a grief counselor who visited him resonated. "Give your sorrow meaning," he urged Marshall. "It was like he flipped a switch," Marshall recalled.
With his wife's retirement savings, he set up the Shelley A. Marshall Foundation. He has used the proceeds to organize dozens of intergenerational tea parties for elderly nursing home residents and high school students across the Washington area, where Shelley grew up, and in West Virginia, where his parents live.
He has also funded story hours at libraries in both places, set up writing contests at high schools and arranged high school art workshops to reflect the interests of his late wife. In all, the foundation has spent about $60,000 on such events and plans to expand nationwide as well as overseas, where tea enthusiasts in Britain and Moscow are planning offshoots.
"I didn't want [Osama] bin Laden to have the last word on her life," Marshall, 39, said. "She died far too young, and I wanted her to be able to touch people."
All together, he figures, more than 5,000 people have participated in the foundation's activities.
"We can leave September 11 as a black day in history," Donn Marshall told guests at a fundraising tea party at the Pentagon City Ritz-Carlton in November, on what would have been Shelley's 40th birthday. "Or we can look at it as a day when something incredible started -- and that's what we're trying to do."
The foundation work has drawn in family and friends. Shelley's mother, Nancy Farr, makes hundreds of cucumber sandwiches and shortbread for the nursing home parties. The work, Farr said, "is a blessing. Shelley will always be with us in our hearts, but other people know her because of the foundation."
Sometimes the work fends off Marshall's loneliness. Sometimes it doesn't. He believes that Shelley is still near. The signs are everywhere. The way the heat in his home clicks on when he asks her for a signal that she's present. A door that blows shut to remind him to take the children's coats to their school on a cold day. A dragonfly balloon from his son's birthday party that drifts into the bedroom and stops by his bed.
The signs comfort him -- a little. "I know she's okay and that's huge," he said. "Now I just have to deal with not seeing her for a long time."
Shelley used to make a pot of tea each night for Donn, and he has taught himself to make tea the way she did. She had collected dozens of different kinds from her favorite tea shops -- fragrant Oolongs, delicate "white" teas and black teas such as light-bodied Darjeeling and full-flavored Assams -- and could recite their characteristics.
Last January, Marshall quit his job and moved his family to West Virginia to be closer to his parents in Martinsburg and Shelley's in Herndon. He said the compensation fund should support his family and put the children through college while he works full time on the foundation.
His next step is having their house built on 18 acres of woods and meadow that he bought just outside Shepherdstown, a cozy town of 1,500.
"I'm going to try to get people to come up for the weekend," he said. "We'll have two to three different people at the dinner table, hopefully, on the weekends -- my artist friends, politicians. I want a lot of people coming in and interesting the kids with their ideas -- I think they should have an extraordinary life after what happened to them."
When Marshall came out to see the land for the first time, he heard a scream above him and looked up to see a hawk. It circled over his head.
"I said, 'Okay, this is the place.' "