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A Neighborly Show of Sympathy
Marbury Residents Help Family of Sept. 11 Victim

Raymond McCaffrey
Washington Post Staff Writer

December 30, 2001; Page T3

The scene was right out of one of America's favorite Christmas movies: a crestfallen man watching neighbors stream into his home to offer money and other tokens of support at his lowest hour. "It's like it was 'A Wonderful Life,' " recalled Donn Marshall, who found himself earlier this month playing the Jimmy Stewart role. For Marshall's neighbors in Charles County, the event had a different theme: "Tragedy has hit the hometown." That was the message on a flier circulated by two Marbury residents, Melvene Butler and Brenda Anthony.

The tragedy was the death of Marshall's wife, Shelley A. Marshall, a Defense Department analyst who died Sept. 11 at the Pentagon when terrorists crashed a hijacked jet into the building. The flier, which asked Marbury residents to help the Marshall family, resulted in a community outpouring: Marshall received more than $4,000 from organizations, churches and the three dozen or so people who came to his home in the beginning of December. "These people came to the house and they brought cookies and cake," Marshall said. "Miss Butler's piano teacher . . . sang, 'God Bless America.' "They just brought a basket and people put envelopes in the basket."

The effort started soon after Butler, who is in her seventies, read in the newspaper of Marshall's loss. That morning, Marshall, a Defense Intelligence Agency employee, had dropped off his wife at the Pentagon, along with their two children, who attended a day-care center on site, before going to his office nearby. His children -- Drake, 3, and Chandler, 2 -- were spared. "When I saw it in the newspaper about a lady who was lost in the Pentagon, I said, 'Oh, they're right on our street,' " Butler said. "I said, 'That's very close. It's too close for comfort.' " But Butler didn't know what to do. She didn't know Marshall. What would she say? Finally, she called Marshall's house one evening. "I just wanted to say I'm sorry," she said. "I don't have any money to give you. I do have a garden and I grow sweet potatoes every year and I make homemade bread." When she went over with the food, she talked to his mother, who explained what a difficult time her son was going through. After hearing that, Butler suddenly felt the food no longer seemed enough.

"I went next door to my neighbor and asked her if there was anybody in the neighborhood -- some churches -- who was doing something." Nothing, it seemed, was planned. "Let's the two of us do something," Butler told Anthony. Together, with the help of a computer-savvy friend, they drafted the flier and circulated it only after getting Marshall's permission. "Let's come to the aid of this family," it said, asking for "money in the form of a check or gift certificate and nonperishable food items." It also contained an unusual request: "Volunteers needed to help complete a block patio." Marshall had been building the patio when his wife died. "They did eat, I guess, their Labor Day celebration meal out there," Butler said. "They got to use it one time. And then on September 11th, she died, and he never touched it again."
They talked to churches and businesses. Then they made arrangements to go to Marshall's house on a Sunday with the donations, but that didn't seem enough. "We know this is not a party," the women told each other. "We don't want this to be a party. But if we have people coming to his house, let's make some cookies." But cookies were not enough -- someone made something to drink. Then Butler went out and bought a guest book -- just a notebook in which people could sign their names. And then Butler decided to ask her piano teacher if she would sing a patriotic song. But the teacher couldn't stay long, so they arranged for another singer, too. And, of course, they needed a minister to say a prayer. So they had a plan of action when the guests descended on the Marshall house. They tried to keep it short. "We didn't want to wear them out," Butler said. "It lasted about an hour and 45 minutes. . . . We had him introduce himself and his children . . ." she recalled. "Most people in the neighborhood did not know him."

Marshall appeared to be somewhat overwhelmed by the gathering and support of neighbors. "I saw him sort of wipe a tear away," Butler said. "I don't know how to describe it," Marshall said. "Here is giving at its purest. It's about as American as you can get."

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