Family turns tragedy into a field of dreams

by Jodi S. Cohen

Four years after Melissa Cook was killed by falling scaffolding from the John Hancock Center, her family has donated $3 million to the University of Notre Dame to build a softball stadium in her name.

The money comes from a lawsuit settlement reached in February. Four women died and at least six people were injured in the 2002 scaffolding accident. Victims and family members received a combined $75.2 million from the owner of the skyscraper, makers and operators of the scaffolding and other companies. The plaintiffs have declined to say how the settlement was divided.

Cook’s mother and stepfather, Linda and Paul Demo, decided to give the bulk of their proceeds to educational causes, especially those that call to mind their daughter’s days at Notre Dame and her love of learning.

Speaking publicly for one of the few times since the accident, the Demos said they also plan to donate several million dollars to send students from northwestern Indiana to college.

“From the beginning of the lawsuit, we didn’t think that money belonged to us. Melissa paid the ultimate price for that money and that money actually belonged to her,” said Cook’s mother, Linda Demo, of Palm Harbor, Fla. “We wanted her memory to live on. We tried to think of ways that would do the most good.”

Raised in a middle-class family in Merrillville, Ind., Cook was an only child whose parents were divorced when she was young. Her mother was a teacher for 34 years and her stepfather was an ironworker.

Played ball at Notre Dame

She attended Notre Dame on a softball scholarship and played her freshmen and sophomore years before studying abroad. She played third base, shortstop and catcher and led the team in triples as a freshman.

Her friends from Notre Dame were like family, the Demos said. Her ties to Notre Dame were so strong that family members had Cook reburied last month in Cedar Grove Cemetery at the entrance to the university.

She graduated in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in accountancy and was working for Teamsters Union Local 786 in Chicago at the time of her death.

Cook died March 9, 2002—the day before she would have turned 30 and hours before a hundred friends were to gather at a Lincoln Park bar to celebrate.

After four years of silence, her mother began to speak publicly this week about her daughter and the day of the accident.

Cook and her cousin, Jill Semplinski Nelson, 28, were killed as scaffolding fell 42 stories and crashed into their car. Their mothers were in the back seat of the car, which was stopped at a light on Chestnut Street.

A woman in another car also was killed by the falling metal debris, which broke loose as the city was under a high-wind advisory. A fourth woman, who was severely injured, died last year.

Cook, her cousin, and their mothers had been shopping along Michigan Avenue for items to wear to Cook’s birthday party later that night in Lincoln Park.

“That is how they found out that she had passed away. We were not able to cancel the party in time,” Linda Demo said. A sign at the bar said the party had been canceled “due to a family emergency,” said Julie McMahon, Cook’s college roommate who now lives in Arlington Heights.

After the lawsuit was settled earlier this year, Cook’s mother and stepfather began considering ways to honor her memory.

They are in the beginning stages of setting up the Melissa Cook Memorial Foundation, which will direct college scholarship money to needy students from Lake County, Ind.. The first scholarships are expected to be given out in fall 2007, said McMahon, a foundation co-director.

Cook’s family also asked Notre Dame officials about the university’s needs, specifically about plans to build a softball stadium. They learned that a stadium was ranked 94th on a list of building priorities, according to Paul Demo.

“We knew the girls were not going to have a stadium in our lifetime. We decided that is what Melissa would like,” Linda Demo said.

Paul Demo said that Cook was sensitive to inequities between men and women, including that Notre Dame baseball players had a high-end stadium while the softball team played on a field and changed clothes in the equivalent of a storage room.

Since Cook’s death, Linda and Paul Demo have stayed close with her friends from Notre Dame. They attended softball games and had dinner with the team. The stadium will be named the Melissa Cook Stadium.

Last month, Cook was re-interred at the university cemetery, which had been reserved for Notre Dame faculty and staff members. University officials said they will soon start a program, called “Coming Home,” allowing alumni to purchase plots, said Dennis Brown, a university spokesman.

“The decision was made that because we had this project coming up, that we would make an exception [for Cook] and allow an early interment because of the tragic circumstances involved,” he said.

McMahon said her friend would be honored to be buried there and to have a facility named in her honor, but that she also would be embarrassed by the attention.

`A fantastic person’

“Melissa was just a fantastic person. She loved being at Notre Dame,” McMahon said. “Her background was quite humble, and I don’t think she took for granted that she was there at Notre Dame. She always realized it was an honor to be there.”

The stadium will be built on the southeast corner of campus,. University officials said they’ve raised an additional $500,000, and construction won’t begin until the project, estimated to cost $4.8 million, is fully funded.

“We don’t have any doubt that we’ll be able to raise the additional funds, hopefully in the near future,” Brown said.

Coach Deanna Gumpf said a new stadium, named after Cook, will inspire future athletes.

“Melissa loved Notre Dame and loved playing softball,” said Gumpf, the women’s head softball coach. “Being here at Notre Dame was such a special place for her, and her parents realized that. Every time someone walks through the Melissa Cook Stadium, they will know her name and learn her story.”

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