December 21 will mark the 25th anniversary of the Pam Am flight 103 plane crash that killed all 243 pas- sengers and 16 crew members. Two Seton Hill University Students (SHU), Elyse Saraceni, 20, and Beth Ann Johnson, 21, were among those killed.
Lois Sculco, Vice President for Institutional Identity, Mission and Student Life, knew both girls. “I have fond memories of Elyse and Beth as well as their parents,” Sculco said. Sculco went on to say that Saraceni and her brother Christopher Saraceni spent a lot of time on Seton Hill’s campus at a young age.
“JoAnne Boyle was not even president for a year and it was around Christmas time,” when the tragedy occurred, Sculco said, “we were at a Christmas party and I remember that call coming in.”
JoAnne Boyle, then president of the college, Vivian Linkhauer and Sculco all went to visit the homes of both girls that night. “I have a distinct memory of the railing Iva had decorated for Elyse’s return,” Sculco said, “I kept thinking, ‘the phone will ring and it will all be a mistake.’”
Trees were planted in memorial for both girls on SHU’s campus just outside the entrance to Reeves Memorial Library. The plaque for Johnson is still at the base of her tree. Saraceni’s tree is still on the corner but the plaque has since disappeared.
After the entire campus was aware, “the community came together in an extraordinary way,” said Curt Scheib, professor of music and chairperson of the Division of Visual & Performing Arts. “We were a smaller community. Both girls were certainly well known,” Scheib said.
A funeral mass for Saraceni was held on campus in St. Joseph’s Chapel. “I remember the funeral mass for Elyse was packed, I sang for that and many other music faculty members were involved,” Scheib said.
In [Month and year] SHU experienced the tragedy of losing their women’s lacrosse coach and her unborn son when their bus crashed on the way to a match in Millersville. “The bus crash certainly brought every- body’s thoughts back” Scheib said.
“It is interesting to see that even though we’re a larger community than we were [at the time of the plane crash], it was amazing still seeing everyone help each other through that tragedy,” Scheib said.
Every year at the Honors Convocation, two awards are given in honor of both Johnson and Saraceni. “Even know I cry for those readings,” Sculco said.
There are plaques on either side of the main doors inside Cecilian Hall in the Administration Building in honor of both students. Sculco stressed that even dur- ing the renovation of Cecilian Hall, the administration made sure the plaques were put back on the wall.
The plaque for Saraceni reads, “Elyse Jeanne Saraceni, 1968-1988, ‘… The light syllables leaped for her. And she balanced in the delight of her thought …’ Theodore Ro- ethke.” Johnson’s plaque reads, “Beth Ann Johnson, 1967-1988, ‘O may my heart’s truth Still be sung On this high HILL.’ Dylan Thomas.”
Sculco said, “Having known both of them, I always see their names and think would they come to alumna weekend? Would they be involved?”
Scheib taught Saraceni in class. “I remember hearing that a plane went down,” Scheib said, “I remember wondering and hoping that that was not the flight she was on but later we did confirmation that it indeed was her plane.”
With the construction of the Performing Arts Center, the university had to decide on their pianos and whether or not to purchase new pianos or bring down the older pianos from main campus. Ed Kuhn, assistant professor of music, said, “we made an initial purchase with Steinway but we needed two Model B’s to put us over the top and make our Steinway school program.”
Those two pianos, as well as three other Essex practice pianos, were purchased by the Saracenies to memorialize Elyse. “It’s a living gift, they touch the students that use them,” Scheib said.
“We went to the factory and met her brother and his family there,” Kuhn said. Faculty from SHU and members of Elyse’s family hand-picked the pianos that would, “help us to fill our program to be a Steinway school,” Kuhn said. They toured the Steinway factory in New York and a special exception was made to let Christopher Saraceni’s children into the factory. “The worker were great with the children,” Kuhn said.
The two Model B piano’s that were donated by the Saracenies are in Kuhn’s studio at the Performing Arts Center. There is also a collage of photos and journal entries from Elyse posted framed on the wall in the studio. “Whenever my freshmen first come into the studio, I make them look at the plaques and read the journal entries,” Kuhn said, “I want them to know that these pianos have a story.”
Johnson’s parents decided to name the music rehearsal hall at the Performing Arts Center after their daughter. Inside the Beth Ann Johnson Rehearsal Hall, there is a collage on the wall of photos and biography of Johnson.
“The Saracenis and Johnsons have reached out in different ways as they sought to honor their daugh- ters,” Scheib said, “Through the wonderful gifts that their parents have given, the spirit of these to young women lives on to students, the gifts will directly impact students.”