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Love after loss

Sometimes tragedy breeds more tragedy.

But, occasionally, it can flower into love.

That's what happened Saturday afternoon in Clarence, when two people whose lives were shattered by the unexpected, tragic deaths of their spouses came together to exchange marriage vows.

Steven T. Diver lost his beloved wife, Joan, a Utah native and mother of his four children, to a serial killer's attack on a Clarence bike path in the fall of 2006.

Jan M. Vesper lost her husband, Jon, a popular high school wrestling coach, after he collapsed and died in their Clarence home in 2007.

Each newlywed is the parent or step-parent of four kids -- the youngest is 3 years old.

Each, at age 43, has been through more heartache than most people can imagine. And yet both Diver and Vesper see their marriage as the most natural of unions.

"My family's whole again, with Jan and the kids," said Diver, a chemistry professor at the University at Buffalo, who wore a boutonniere of black-eyed Susans for the ceremony. "We each bring a piece -- and make our families whole."

Vesper said she felt "wonderful" at the end of the late-afternoon service.

"I felt very comfortable," she added, "and a lot of joy."

Those who know the couple well -- 140 guests turned out to witness them exchange vows on the grounds of the Clarence home they will share -- agreed.

"I don't think there could have been a better result," said Corey Hogan, an Amherst lawyer who, with his wife, Jennifer, is a friend of both Diver's and Vesper's. "They probably both appreciate more so than most people what it takes to understand happiness."

Even from afar, those who know the circumstances under which the couple married expressed love and support.

"I think it's a good day," said Dr. William W. Barney, 81, the father of Joan Diver, from his family's home outside Salt Lake City.

Vesper and Diver lived in the same town -- Clarence -- for years, but they had never met until a year ago in October.

Here's how it happened, what they've overcome -- and the dreams they have about the future. On one thing, both newlyweds agree:

Nothing can erase the loved ones they have lost and the sadness they've endured. But life goes on. And with it, love.

>The Steven Diver story

Steven Diver lost his wife, Joan, on a Friday morning in late September, five years ago.

The 45-year-old stay-at-home mother had dropped her youngest son off at day care and then headed out for a jog. She never returned. Two days later, Joan's body was found along a Clarence bike path.

In the weeks after her death, Steven endured an onrush of publicity, in which his wife's picture, description and story became fodder for public conversation -- and police scrutiny. He took a semester off work at UB. He learned what it was to raise four active children -- ranging from 5 to 15 years old -- alone.

"It was kind of impossible," Steven reflected recently. "I kept up a wall -- I didn't let anyone in for a while."

Hardest of all was trying to protect his children from the glare of a public spotlight that the Diver family never desired.

"It was an extremely dark time," Steven said. "I don't even remember all of that time. I wanted to protect the identity of the kids. I didn't want them to be involved in it -- any more than they had to be."

Joan's death was linked to the crimes of Altemio Sanchez, the Bike Path Killer, who attacked at least 20 women in Western New York. Steven faced Sanchez during his sentencing in 2007, and he spoke about the pain his family experienced.

That eased his pain, some. Nothing else really helped but time -- and meeting Vesper.

>The Jan Vesper story

Jan Vesper was expecting her third child when she lost her husband, Jon.

The Vespers grew up together in Clarence and graduated in the Class of 1985 from Clarence High School. Back then, Jon was a top wrestler and had been Section VI champion in 1983-84. Jan was a serious, bright student who was well-liked.

The couple reconnected as adults and married in the late 1990s. By early 2007, Jan was caring for their two young children, as well as a stepchild from Jon's prior marriage, and was pregnant again. Jon was a wrestling coach for Clarence and was attending college to become a physical education teacher.

One Friday evening in late March, Jon, who was popular with students, entertained some of his former athletes in his home. Later that night, he died of heart problems, after collapsing on the floor of the Vespers' home. He was 40.

"We were both very happily married," said Jan, recently, of herself and Diver. "You think you'll never find that again."

Hardest for Jan was giving birth to her third child that fall and not having Jon by her side. She named the baby Cael, as Jon had wished.

"There were some dark days," said Paula Wolter, a close friend of Jan who was with her on the day she delivered Cael. "We wept all through her pregnancy. We would say, 'There has got to be a silver lining -- there has got to be.' "

>How they met

Diver was attending a family party at the Clarence home of Corey and Jennifer Hogan last fall, just before his 43rd birthday.

Drawn together in the weeks after Joan's death, the Hogan and Diver families had become close over the past five years.

"We spent every Mother's Day together, we'd spend every Christmas together, and all sorts of other stuff in between," Jennifer Hogan said of the Divers. "They were part of our family."

Jennifer Hogan and her sisters were also childhood friends of Jan Vesper, having grown up in the same neighborhood.

Jennifer, her sisters and Corey encouraged Diver to give a young mother in town -- Vesper -- a call.

"My sisters and I kind of saw that he and Jan could work out," said Jennifer Hogan. "They were the same ages, both had kids, both had lost their spouses within six months of each other."

Diver remembers the day as well, and what sticks out in his memory was Corey Hogan asking him whether he had any plans to date again.

"Corey said, 'Steve, what's the dating plan?' " Diver recalled, smiling. "And I said, 'I don't want to date trivially. I don't have a lot of time, I've got four kids, and I'm working full-time.' "

But he gave in -- and called Vesper. Even on that first short chat, Diver heard something that encouraged him: the sounds of children playing on her end of the phone.

"I could hear a bunch of kids screaming in the background," Diver joked. "She called me back a little bit later, and we set up a lunch date. We connected on that date. We talked for probably two hours."

>Plans to wed

After that first lunch at an Amherst Thai restaurant, Diver and Vesper knew they had a lot in common. They each liked exercise and experiencing new things. They respected each other as professionals, parents and spouses who had lost loved ones.

Also: Each knew the other was serious about a relationship.

"We had a good feeling about it early on," said Diver. "It might have been a little bit reckless even, but almost from the very outset, we started doing things together as a family group."

The kids they number between them include Vesper's children: Cael, who turns 4 in early October; Grace, 8; Nathan, 10; and a stepdaughter, Brittany, 19. Also in the mix are Diver's four children: Carter, 9; Claudie, 14; Collin, 17; and Conrad, 19. A niece of Vesper's, Rachel Spratta, 19, also lives with the family.

Vesper said the children took to the idea of an expanded family.

"The kids were great," she said. "Right from the start, one of Steve's said 'I want Nathan to be my brother!' It's kind of funny, the read kids have on things."

Diver proposed to Vesper in March at a Clarence coffeehouse, on a busy weeknight on which they were planning to attend kids' functions and run errands.

"He had been carrying the ring around with him," Vesper joked.

Vesper -- who now wears a white gold wedding band next to her diamond solitaire -- paused, and then said yes.

"I thought it was perfect," she said. "I might have had tears in my eyes."

Diver concurred: "She was very quiet. She was listening to me very carefully."

Vesper agreed, but she said it wasn't because she needed time to decide.

"There was no decision. I was just soaking everything in -- and being happy."

>Support all around

As a mark of respect, Diver and Vesper flew to Utah to talk to Joan Diver's parents about their plans to marry.

Vesper -- who will use a hyphenated last name -- said she was touched by the way Bill and Eulaween Barney welcomed her and approved of the marriage.

"Families are the basic unit of society; they're very important," said Barney, a retired physician and former bishop in the Mormon church, by phone from his Utah home. "If there is a spouse missing, it takes away from the blessing and unity of the family."

"We love Steve and he's part of the family. He and Jan seem to be a good match."

Vesper's family also offered their blessing on the new union.

"Jan's the kind of person who likes to live life to the fullest," said Kim Banish, the older sister of Jon Vesper. "If someone can join her on that journey -- that's the life she would choose. We are thrilled for them."

Diver and Vesper said Joan and Jon will remain a part of their futures.

"That's what's unique about our relationship," said Diver. "Joan and Jon are going to be part of our family, of our history. They're not going away. We have to embrace that and be comfortable with it."

In the home they will share from now on, a rambling farmhouse-style structure on five acres of land bordered by a small creek, that remembrance will also be evident.

"Jon and Joan will definitely be in there in some way," said Diver. "We'll keep some family photos out."

>A poignant ceremony

At the wedding Saturday -- a 25-minute service held indoors followed by an outdoor reception -- officiant Steve Biegner, a former pastor at Zion Lutheran Church on Clarence Center Road, told the 140 guests that Diver and Vesper's wedding was special.

"They don't need to know what marriage is like," Biegner said. "They've experienced it. Today, you need to be told: Awake! The rains are gone. Awake! The winter is over. Spring is here."

At the end of the service, Diver and Vesper -- and their eight children and stepchildren -- conducted a "sand ceremony."

In it, each member of the new family poured a layer of colored sand into a glass vessel. Joan Diver and Jon Vesper were also represented by colors of sand -- blue for Jon's eyes, yellow because it was Joan's favorite -- that were poured by family members.

The way the different colors came together to create beauty -- while remaining distinct -- symbolizes their new family, Diver and Vesper said.

"They're one big happy family now!" said Stephanie Mills, Joan Diver's sister, who with her daughter Cori, 13, drove 30 hours from Utah to attend the wedding.

"We're very happy for Jan," said Ruth Ann Hammond, Jan's mother. "It's the beginning of a new life for them both."

Claudie Diver, a freshman at Clarence High School, said there will probably be challenges in their new life together, but she said that one thing will be no problem.

"The easiest part will be becoming a family," she said. "Because we sort of already are."

Collin Diver said the pre-wedding stress of preparations gave way Saturday to a feeling of exuberance between the two families.

"Everybody's in a great mood," he said. "We just want to savor the moment."

For their wedding song, Diver and Vesper chose "Beautiful Things" by Gungor:

"All this pain

I wonder if I'll ever find my way

I wonder if my life could really change at all

You make beautiful things

You make beautiful things out of the dust

You make beautiful things

You make beautiful things out of us."

A delighted Diver, looking around at the new home he will share with nine young people and a bride who was glowing in a short, lace-embroidered white dress, said he felt "great" about the future.

His sentiments echoed ones he had recently voiced while talking about Jan and the family.

"As quickly as things can turn for the worse," he said, "they can turn for the better."

email: cvogel@buffnews.com