“I know that voice and that energy was Alicia, wanting me to be present with her the only way that I could be,” Bev said. “I can’t find any other way to explain the way that I felt that pull and the urge to turn on the TV just when it happened.”
Since losing Alicia 20 years ago this week, Bev and her husband, John Titus, have experienced another strong pull — to honor their beloved daughter by promoting peace throughout the world. To date they have raised more than $100,000 for the Alicia Titus Memorial Peace Fund. They have participated in programs that encourage conflict resolution and promote peace education in schools and at the Dayton International Peace Museum.
This weekend, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, they are sponsoring two major events in Urbana — the Alicia Titus Memorial Peace Run on Sept. 11 and a keynote speech Sept. 12 by author and former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson — a friend of the Titus family.
“After Alicia was killed we were in a lot of pain and grief, and we didn’t know what to do with all of that,” John recalled. “It came to us almost immediately that we wanted to work for peace. Alicia’s very nature was a peaceful one. She was a loving, compassionate, wise young lady who loved people from all walks of life.”
A youthful peacemaker
During a visit with her grandmother in San Francisco, 4-year-old Alicia asked her mother about a homeless man they had met: “Why does that man have all his clothes with him?”
After her mother explained, Alicia smilingly gave the man a crumpled dollar bill — the entirety of her allowance money.
It was a characteristic act for the joyful, affectionate child who loved to dance so much that she earned the early nickname “Boogie.” She loved to cuddle with her sheepdog Cleo, often using her as a pillow, while eagerly welcoming the arrival of siblings Shanoa, Zac and Eli.
Alicia excelled at Graham High School in St. Paris, playing cornet in the band, joining the cheerleading squad, and nabbing the lead role in the musical. She was selected as “Young Woman of the Year” to represent Champaign County. Tragedy entered this idyllic existence when her 15-year-old cousin, Gabriel Titus, died in a car accident in 1991. Alicia, then 17, sang “Amazing Grace” in her beautiful soprano voice.
Seeking adventure, meaning
After graduating from Miami University in 1995 with a degree in international business, Alicia backpacked through Morocco and Spain. She landed an office job with TIme Warner Cable in Columbus, but the corporate world left her unfulfilled; it felt too cold, too impersonal. She longed for work that would give her a sense of purpose and use her formidable interpersonal skills. Becoming a flight attendant seemed like the perfect fit, enabling her to travel the world while earning money for graduate school and an eventual career teaching college like her parents.
When she graduated from flight school in January 2001, a beaming Alicia posed for a photo with her mother and maternal grandmother. Bev said her own warm smile masked her true feelings. “I was afraid they would crash,” she confessed.
Alicia maintained a home base in San Francisco despite the logistical challenges of being based in Boston with United Airlines. She had fallen in love with the people and the climate, and in late 2000 she fell in love with a young man named Greg Ernst. He met Alicia’s parents in July 2001, when she invited him along on a family vacation.
“He was just wonderful, and you could tell that she was totally in love,” John said.
Alicia’s parents sensed she was ready for marriage and motherhood. She would hold her newborn nephew, Logan, for hours on end, joking, “He makes my ovaries scream.” She loved telling people that Logan was her baby, and she was only loaning him to her sister Shanoa.
“She loved children,” Bev said. “She would have been the best mom.”
Sept. 11, 2001
John headed in to work at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan, where he joined the faculty in 1997 after a long teaching career at Urbana University. “It was a beautiful day, full of bright sunshine, and I felt very much at peace,” he recalled.
His staff meeting ended as the tragedy unfolded in New York City, but no alarm bells went off. “With the thousands of planes in the air that day, what are the odds that one of the planes was Alicia’s?” he told himself.
“That was all part of the denial,” he said.
Bev joined John on campus when she grew worried about their daughter. Then one of Alicia’s fellow flight attendants and roommates in Boston confirmed she was on United Flight 175, and their fears intensified, but United had not confirmed the flight number.
Bev and John made the seemingly endless drive to their home in Dexter, Michigan, in silence. When they reached the house, the phone was ringing. It was their son Zac, who delivered the news that Alicia had been aboard the fatal flight.
“I couldn’t breathe,” John recalled. “The overwhelming grief just slams you down. The bottom had fallen out of our lives.”
John rushed to Dexter High School to tell the terrible news to their youngest child, Eli, before he heard from someone else that he had lost the big sister who was like a second mother to him. Eli burst into tears, and father and son “hugged each other in a powerful embrace that encapsulated the utter desperation and powerful love we felt in that moment,” John wrote in his moving 2011 memoir, “Losing Alicia.”
Eli vowed, “I want to kill the people who did this.”
That was the moment, perhaps, that his parents’ peace activism was born. “Son, we can’t do to them what was done to us,” they told him.
“It took a while, but Eli also came to realize that was not the answer,” Bev said.
Amazing Grace: Finding purpose after devastation
The family had no body to bury, no gravesite to visit. Alicia’s driver’s license and Boston Library card were the only personal items recovered from the wreckage of the World Trade Center.
More than 500 mourners attended the Sept. 17 standing room only memorial service at Messiah Lutheran Church in Urbana. Alicia’s childhood piano teacher played the hymn that best captured her spirit: “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.” When her brother Zac’s brave tenor faltered during the second verse of “Amazing Grace,” the congregation joined him in song, as if it had been rehearsed.
The truly difficult work of healing had only begun, in spite of a culture that was perpetually sending the message that they should move on.
“It was so disheartening when our leaders told us to just go shopping,” Bev said.
A co-worker even asked, “It has been six weeks. Are you over it yet?”
Working full-time for peace
From the beginning, the couple spoke out publicly against the war in Afghanistan.
“We didn’t want to dishonor who she was by embracing war,” John said. “We didn’t want any more violence or the killing of innocent people in her name.”
Added Bev, “We felt pretty isolated living in Michigan when Alicia was killed, when everyone around us wanted to go to war.”
The couple, who now split their time between homes in Michigan and St. Paris, persisted in their peace advocacy, in spite of the barrage of hate mail and even the occasional threat.
“We were called unpatriotic because we didn’t want any more killing,” Bev said.
Once when they participated in a panel discussion at the Ann Arbor, Michigan, library, an audience member told them, “You deserve to die because you are pacifists, and so did your daughter because she was, too.”
They found comfort and kindred spirits in the survivors’ group Sept. 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, which promotes nonviolent solutions to terrorism.
“As soon as you meet them, you feel as if you have known them your whole lives,” John said. “I didn’t have to say another word to another father who had lost a child on 9/11. When we embraced, I could feel what he was feeling.”
Inspired by other survivors, the couple quit their teaching jobs at Schoolcraft College and dedicated themselves full-time to peace work, taking part in countless peace marches and rallies and making frequent public appearances. They established the Alicia Titus Scholarship, initially awarded to Urbana University students until the college closed in 2020. The scholarship now will be awarded to a Graham High School student.
The couple has remained close with Alicia’s boyfriend. “He’s our son-in-law,” John said.
On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Ernst told The New York Times that he, too, had been inspired by Alicia’s memory to volunteer helping homeless teenagers get into college, and to work as a volunteer firefighter in Seattle.
“We all wanted to continue her legacy,” Bev explained. “She was such a peacemaker; she couldn’t stand it if someone was having a disagreement.”
The couple feels tremendous relief that the war in Afghanistan is finally over, but their feelings are complicated, Bev said: “It is heartbreaking to know that so many lives — American and Afghani and Iraqi civilians — have been lost and billions and trillions of our resources used over the last 20 years, and the young men and women serving in the war today were toddlers on Sept. 11, 2001. We are saddened for the Afghani people, especially the women and young girls, and sad for our wounded soldiers and soldiers who were killed, and their families. There has been so much loss over these last 20 years since our government went into an unwinnable war after the terrorist attacks.”
Added John: “I hope the seeds of democracy and the seeds of a better life have been planted in Afghanistan. My heart goes out to them, and I wish them the best.”
Alicia’s presence missed, but always felt
Twenty years after Alicia’s death, her family still desperately misses her physical presence. She would have been 48 years old, and her parents can’t help wondering where she might be in life.
“At weddings or births or family gettogethers, her presence is always missing,” John said. “She would have spoiled our grandkids endlessly.”
And yet her presence is always felt. “She taught me a lot about life and love and how to be a better person,” Bev said.
While seeking solace in the mountains the day after Alicia died, John felt her presence tangibly — her radiant face appeared before him, followed by a vision of Alicia comforting a child in the rear section of the airplane.
It’s easy for John to imagine that’s how his daughter spent her last moments on Earth. “The flight crews were the initial first responders on 9/11, dealing with all the chaos and the killings on the planes,” he said. “I know that Alicia did a lot of good that day.”
Alicia wanted to do so much more good in this world, her mother said: “After she was killed, we had to be her voice and to continue this work in her honor because that opportunity was taken from her. We want to create a different future for our grandchildren and for all the rest of our world.”
How to go
What: The Alicia Titus Memorial Peace Run 5 K Walk/Run for Peace
When: Sept. 11, 9:03 a.m. (after a moment of silence)
Where: Freedom Grove, 1512 S. U.S. 68, Urbana
Pre-registration ends Sept. 8.
How to go
What: “Commemorating 20 Years of Peacebuilding after 9/11,” a keynote speech by author and former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. She befriended the Titus family after Alicia’s death and has spoken at every five-year anniversary event in her memory after 9/11.
When: 3 p.m. Sept. 12
Where: Urbana Christian Conference Center, 1778 Ohio 29
Proceeds from both events will be donated to the Alicia Titus Memorial Peace Fund.