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Hills East 9/11 Victims' Classmates Keep Their Memory Alive

Tom Collins and Chris Panatier's spirit lives on through foundation started by their fellow class of '83 alumni.

It would be easy to say the events of Sept. 11, 2001 brought the Half Hollow Hills East High Class of 1983 closer together.

After all, two of its members were among the thousands lost that tragic day.

The truth is, they were always tight, and what happened in the years since has been an extension of the camaraderie and spirit of that class, which has served to keep the memories of those that perished alive, and burning bright.

Walk up the steps near the main entrance of Hills East, make a few turns through its hallways, and you'll find the Tom Collins/Chris Panatier Memorial Garden. It's a lush courtyard where students and teachers can chat, study, and reflect.

That's what Paul Spreer wants people to do. Reflect, about who Tom and Chris were. Paul is one of the class of '83, and was good friends with both men. He also serves on the board of the Tom Collins/Chris Panatier 9/11 Memorial Foundation.

"Instead of letting [9/11] inhibit us, we turned to each other and decided what's next, what can we do to carry on their memory?" Spreer said.

Tom was married and worked for Sandler O'Neill. Chris was married with two children and worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. Both were working on the 104th floor of their respective WTC towers when the planes hit. It was after Chris' memorial service that the decision was made to start a foundation in both men's name.

The first step: reconnect with their alma mater. Hills East officials were more than accommodating, Spreer says.

"They pretty much opened up the campus to us," he said. "There were a couple of spots in need of some attention and that's when this thing really started to take off, basically they gave us a whole garden."

Foundation member/Hills alum Gus Wade is a commercial landscaper, and got to work. Through another classmate, a sculptor was found to design a monument, which stands in the middle of the garden. Through him, filmmakers were brought in to document the efforts, and "Class of '83" was released in 2004. The film has been shown to Hills East seniors every year since.

"Our main objective through this whole thing is really to keep their memory alive, this is a wonderful tribute to them and the people they touched," Spreer said.

Along with creating the garden (which also bears the name of 9/11 victim and East class of '79 grad Edward Fergus), the foundation creates opportunity. Each year, scholarships are awarded to two East seniors in the amount of $2,000. All are welcome to apply, and write essays to the foundation stating their case.

"The main thing we're one looking for is just a well rounded student that has all the qualities Tom and Chris had, they were both great students, great academics ... both had a wonderful sense of inclusion amongst their social life and life in general," Spreer said. 

This years winners are Stephen Mincore and Ashley Kresofsky. Steve is a scholar athlete headed to Binghamton, and Ashley is a member of the National and French honor societies and will be attending the University of Tampa in the fall.

Along with funding scholarships, the foundation also donates to such charities as Angela's House and .

Paul Spreer says Tom Collins 'wanted everyone to enjoy life as much as he did,' and calls Chris Panatier 'incredibly intelligent and incredibly caring.'

So what would the pair think of the work their friends have done on their behalf?

"They're laughing their asses off," Spreer said.

Laughs that can be heard in the garden that bears their names. In the school they called home.

Class of 1983 for life.

Frank Grimaldi June 23, 2011 at 01:36 PM
The people involved in the Tom Collins/Chris Panatier 9/11 Memorial Foundation are some of the GREATEST people you will ever meet. Their love for their friends (and families) and their commitment to the community are unbelievable. It is an honor for me to call them friends. God Bless you all. Chris and Tom would be proud.

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