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Sean Kirst: An unexpected gift for New York's oldest Gold Star Mother

Marsha Connor had a gift Friday for Helen Donovan. She brought a golden bag and pair of slippers, covered with glittering golden sparkles, for the 98th birthday of the woman who is believed to be the oldest Gold Star mother in New York State, and certainly among the oldest in the nation.

Helen loved the presents. She gave Marsha a kiss. She laughed and sang a song, a gentle melody of mysterious words that she often sings when she is happy.

Both women have served as officers in the Syracuse chapter of the American Gold Star Mothers, a national organization of women who lost sons or daughters in military service. Yet to Marsha — a former chapter president who helped her friend put on the new slippers Friday at the Loretto Health and Rehabilitation Center in Syracuse — the gifts came nowhere close to expressing her gratitude.

"She welcomed me in," Marsha said of Helen, recalling the difficult time in which they met. Helen, she said, immediately conveyed her understanding of the hardest truth of all.

"As a Gold Star mother, you may forget a lot of things," Marsha said. "But you never forget every detail of the moment — where you were, what the weather was like, what you were doing — when you learn about your son."

Bobby Donovan, as a teen, shortly before getting sent to Vietnam. (Photo courtesy of Ray and Pat Moran)

Marsha and her husband, Will, a retired bookstore administrator at Syracuse University, raised three sons. Patrick grew up to become a Navy lieutenant and an aviator. He was a copilot of an A-6 Intruder that was shot down in 1991, during the first Gulf War.

Patrick had left careful instructions: If anything happened to him, his brother Jeff — also a Navy aviator — should learn before anyone else. So it was Jeff who made the call to his parents, on a quiet Saturday afternoon in which the normalcy itself, the quiet moments just before the phone rang, remains specific and unforgettable.

And it was Jeff who called again a few months later, on Easter Sunday, to tell Marsha and Will that Patrick's remains had been recovered. The Connors, who take solace in their faith, have learned to find peace in the timing of that call.

Helen Donovan and Marsha Connor: With sons lost in war in different generations, both became local officers with the American Gold Star Mothers. (Sean Kirst/Buffalo News)

The couple shares an understanding that goes beyond words, the same understanding Marsha felt from Helen Donovan at Marsha's first meeting of the Gold Star Mothers, in Syracuse.

"I joined right after 1991, and Helen was very active at that time," Marsha said. Helen's story was equally searing. She and her husband Fran had named their oldest son after Bob Donovan, Fran's brother, who was shot down and killed in World War II.

Young Bobby was a Little League baseball star, one of those fearsome childhood pitchers who threw the ball so hard his opponents still speak of it with awe, even as they enter their 70s. But his friends recall him most distinctly for his world view, for the nature of his heart.

As a teenager, just out of high school, he went into the Army. Before he left, he placed his baseball cap on the bedpost in his childhood room.

At 19, he arrived in Vietnam.

He was killed, shot to death, on one of his first patrols.

For decades - until Alzheimer's disease sent Helen into assisted care — she left the cap in the bedroom, exactly where Bobby put it. Marsha remembers how Helen was able to laugh, to find joy in life, but her biggest concern was one she quietly shared with the other Gold Star mothers:

Marsha and Will Connor: After losing their son Patrick in the Gulf War, faith and comfort in service. (Sean Kirst/Buffalo News)

Helen simply hoped her son, and his sacrifice, would not be forgotten.

Her husband, Fran, died in 2013, although he lived to see the Elmwood Little League baseball diamond in Syracuse renamed in Bobby's honor. For a time, Fran and Helen resided together at Loretto. Now, Helen — whose status as New York's oldest Gold Star Mother is confirmed to the best knowledge of Carrie Farley, state president of the group — has a room that spills over with bright sunlight, and she keeps Bobby's picture near her bed.

While Marsha brought her the slippers and the purse for her birthday, the couple discovered an even greater gift in June, in the Cayuga County village of Port Byron.

A social studies teacher, Linda Townsend, organized an effort to host "The Wall that Heals," a traveling replica of the Vietnam National Memorial in Washington D.C. It was set up on a green athletic field, just outside the Dana West Junior and Senior High.

As evening fell and soft light illuminated the temporary wall, Marsha and other Gold Star mothers volunteered to help visitors at the event. In their spare moments, they made a point of searching for the names of the young servicemen on the wall who were associated with their chapter.

Since Helen couldn't be there, Marsha looked for Bobby's name. She wanted to be sure someone paid tribute to his memory.

To her joy, she discovered someone already had.

A visitor — clearly a soldier who served in Vietnam — had traveled to Port Byron to leave some photos of Bobby, from their time in the service. There was an image of Bobby riding a motorcycle during training, and a photo of Bobby joking around with other guys in his unit. Those pictures were set carefully beneath his name, along with a bouquet of flowers and a small American flag.

More than 50 years after Bobby's death, another veteran remembered.

So Marsha and Will Connor paid two visits to Helen over the weekend, and they brought her all those gifts. The greatest one is what they found at that green field in Port Byron, the only comfort that she ever asked for all she lost:

Even now, in the world, someone is thinking of her son.

Sean Kirst is a columnist for The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

Golden slippers: Marsha Connor's birthday gift for Helen Donovan, New York's oldest Gold Star Mother. (Sean Kirst/Buffalo News)

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