President Latham Shares 9/11 Memories

On Friday, the day before the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Punahou President Mike Latham ’86 spoke at a small campus gathering organized by the School’s JROTC members in remembrance of Patriots Day.

As part of the event, JROTC members draped lei on a wreath in honor of 13 service members who recently lost their lives in that attack at Kabul Airport in Afghanistan.

Two alumni, Heather Ho ’87 and Rich Lee ’86, who lost their lives during 9/11, were also remembered. Lee worked at Cantor Fitzgerald at one of the World Trade towers, and Ho was a pastry chef at the Windows on the World restaurant.

During his speech, Latham spoke about personally being in New York when the twin towers of the World Trade Center were struck.

The following is a transcript of his moving remembrance:

“It’s hard for me personally to believe that it has actually been 20 years since September 11th, 2001. Students, I know that none of you were alive at that point. I remember that day very clearly. At the time, I was a professor of history at Fordham University in New York, and I was in New York City on September 11th. In fact, I had taken the train from where I was living in Westchester County that morning on an incredibly beautiful, clear, crisp fall day. It was one of those days where you think that everything is right with the world and you have that deep sense of optimism and excitement, and that’s how I felt. That’s how I always felt at the start of every school year.

I walked into my office, which was on the sixth floor of the building in which I worked, and started taking some phone calls and working on my computer. A colleague came in and told me a plane had hit the World Trade Center. At first, I imagined that maybe he meant a small Cessna, a small individually piloted aircraft, and it became very clear that was not the case.

Before long, I walked down the hallway with a bunch of my colleagues, and from a conference room with large windows, we looked south into Manhattan and could see the towers burning from where we were. It was a terrible feeling, a feeling at once of disbelief that this is actually happening in front of you and you can see it and, secondly, a deep sense of disquietude and dread, because you knew that lives were being lost, that husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, children, mothers and fathers were dying. It was a truly horrific moment.

As we turned on the radio, we could hear the voice of a woman who was very close to the towers in lower Manhattan begin to scream, ‘Oh my God, they’re collapsing. They’re collapsing,’ and from where we were standing, we watched the buildings fall. It was probably the darkest day of my personal life, the moment at which I felt the most penetrating sense of anguish. That sense lasted, and it only grew over time.

As I went home, all transportation stopped on that day in Manhattan, I had taken the train in, so I had no way to get back home. I finally found a colleague who gave me a ride in his car. As I got home and began to realize the sheer magnitude of what had happened and began to see photographs and additional images, a deep sense of sorrow began to really fill my heart. The parking lots, which were for the Metro North commuter train, which I had ridden into the city that day, became a source of that reminder because there were cars in those parking lots which never moved. They were cars which belonged to people who had perished in the towers. They sat in those parking lots, and for days afterwards, we saw them there. There was just this deep sense that these individual lives had been taken.

Rich Lee was a classmate of mine from the Class of 1986. I met him in seventh grade. We had Spanish class together. Rich was a really amazing, a tremendous person. He was a big person. He was an imposing person. He was a football player, and a really good one. He was a punk rock guitarist, and he was truly brilliant. It’s not an accident that he went to Yale. That’s where Rich needed to be. Heather Ho was a good friend of my sister’s from the Class of 1987. They knew each other well. A girl who I grew up with in Hawai‘i named Maile Hale, who lived on my street, perished in the towers as well. She had just graduated from college.

Those losses made things deeply personally, and they really drove home the magnitude of what had happened. Yet when I went to go and visit the Memorial for the Twin Towers, which it took me a long time to be able to do just emotionally, I was struck by the sense of reflection and remembrance that was there, the sense that these people’s memories and lives continued. While they themselves were no longer here, their memories were here and, in many ways, the examples that they set were still very present and very tangible.

I think that’s really the question that runs through my head and probably the question I would put to all of you: What do we do? What do we do to honor the memories and the legacies of people who have lost their lives, the legacies of the lives that were lost on September 11th, the legacies of the lives that you just honored of those servicemen and women who had lost their lives in Afghanistan? It’s not an easy question.

On September 11th, of course, there were firemen and policemen who ran into burning buildings, who deliberately and intentionally put their lives at risk in a desperate attempt to save others. Very few of us have that kind of responsibility or opportunity. Very few of us have that kind of tangible, direct connection. And yet I do think that in our own lives, in the legacy that we choose to leave, we have the opportunity to carry forward the kind of love, the kind of caring, the kind of dedication that those people showed, in the daily lives which we lead, in the ways that we treat each other, in the values that we uphold, in the communities that we serve, in the things that are important to us.

I hope that we can bear that in mind every day. I truly believe every day each of us has the opportunity to reflect on the difference that we’re going to make, on the legacy that we’re going to leave. I think if we can bring that kind of caring, that kind of love, that kind of selflessness into our lives in the ways we treat others, then we will truly do justice to and honor those whose lives were tragically lost. That, I think, is where our responsibility continues.

I think you’re already doing that as members of JROTC. I would encourage you all to continue to look for opportunities to do that in your lives each day, because you truly can make a difference and you truly can contribute to a more just, more humane and better world. That is truly the best way to honor those who’ve been lost. Again, I want to thank you and encourage you to give yourself time for that kind of discernment and reflection. Amid the fragility of human life, what kind of a legacy do you want to leave? What can you contribute to making a more just, humane and peaceful world?”

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