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Before the pain of Terri LaManno’s death, a phone call brought joy and a long-awaited reunion

This is the only photo of the entire LaManno family: Jim and Terri (together, front left), son Gian, and daughters Jen and Alissa (right).
This is the only photo of the entire LaManno family: Jim and Terri (together, front left), son Gian, and daughters Jen and Alissa (right). Courtesy of the family

The 26-year-old woman with a smile like her mother’s picked up the telephone to make a call that would change one family’s life and forever alter her own.

The phone rang a few times that Thursday evening at the Kansas City home of Jim and Terri LaManno before going to voice mail. The next morning, Terri listened.

“Hi,” the caller’s voice said. “This is Jen from St. Louis.”

In just six months, all their lives would change again in a way so tragic that national headlines about violence and hate would follow. Terri, 53, would lie dead outside the Village Shalom nursing facility in Overland Park, not far from the Jewish Community Center, where Reat Underwood, 14, and his grandfather William Corporon, 69, also were shot to death. Last week, a southwest Missouri man known for his anti-Semitic views was ordered to stand trial for capital murder.

The October 2013 call from Jen, though, brought such joy. Such utter happiness in the months before all the pain.

The message continued.

“I’m your daughter,” the caller said.

Terri and Jim had prayed this call would come. Always in their minds was the baby girl born in the fall of 1987. The pregnancy wasn’t planned and, at that point, neither was their future together.

So, two years before they eventually would marry and raise two children in Kansas City, Terri and Jim gave up their newborn daughter for adoption. Jennifer Elizabeth was raised by a loving St. Louis couple who had tried for 10 years to have a child.

In the tale that has become the LaMannos’, where loss and grief have been detailed in a public way, there’s another story. It’s one of love and sacrifice, family devotion and dreams cut short by gunshots last April.

This other story is about a young woman who would come to know her birth mother before it was too late. About a husband who mourns the loss of the woman he loved to travel with and cook and drink wine alongside and with whom he was planning to celebrate 25 years of marriage. And it’s about their children Alissa, 24, and Gian, 21, and other extended family members, who now cherish memories of a woman who shared her sense to always do what was right, hold family close and never judge another person.

Terri’s family wants people to know that she was a person of unwavering faith who was passionate about the children she helped as an occupational therapist. She dedicated much of her life to raising two children and felt blessed that she had gotten to know the child who remained in her thoughts for 27 years.

Terri’s story deserves to be told, family members say.

“If her story gets lost, I will have lost her too,” Alissa says. “Completely.”

Keeping the faith

Jim and Terri met by chance in June 1986.

He was coming out of a restaurant at 103rd Street and State Line Road. In the parking lot, he saw a young woman he’d known in high school. She was with her roommate — Terri Hastings.

“I don’t know if there were sparks,” Jim says now, smiling. But he does know that when the woman from high school said she and Terri were going to play tennis at a certain time, he showed up.

Terri wasn’t at the courts, though, so he called her. In September, they found time to fit a concert into their busy schedules. She worked nights as a nurse at Western Missouri Mental Health Center. A dentist, he worked during the day, six days a week.

He recalls being drawn to Terri’s looks, caring personality and intellect. Later he would see their similarities: both from middle-class Catholic homes, educated, focused on their careers.

They dated through the fall. By February 1987, Terri was pregnant.

“I would have married her right then and there,” Jim says. “But she wasn’t sure about me. She wasn’t sure at the time whether she was in love with me.”

Terri wrote about that time during a church retreat a year before her death. She wrote that when she discovered she was pregnant, she made a list of pros and cons and “came up with a solution that would do the most good.”

“The Christ-like thing to do, as my father would say,” she wrote of that time when she was 25 and Jim was 30. “I choose adoption for my child.”

She did what family members say Terri always did: She made a plan, mapped everything out.

She would move to St. Louis, far enough to lessen the likelihood of running into the child one day. She would finish her bachelor’s in nursing across the state.

“I wanted to put myself in a situation that would help me follow through on my decision,” Terri later wrote. “I lived in an apartment, had a job and had the support of Catholic Charities.

“Even though I had many supports, it was the loneliest time of my life.”

Jim LaManno stayed by Terri. He visited her in St. Louis and was there in October 1987 when she gave birth.

Terri and Jim each wrote the baby girl a letter and left a gift for Catholic Charities to pass on.

From Terri: a wooden cross.

From Jim: a St. Christopher medallion, a Catholic symbol that represents protection. He bought two, leaving one for the baby and keeping the other to wear himself.

Soon after the birth, Terri returned to Kansas City. She and Jim continued to date.

“I knew she was for me,” Jim says. “And I think she realized I was there for the duration.”

As the two took a walk one summer evening in 1988, he proposed. She said yes.

As they began their life together, and in the years to come, the daughter they’d given up for adoption remained in their thoughts. The doubts were sometimes there too. But along with all that was faith.

“We never wavered from our belief that one day we would meet her,” Jim says.

‘It’s time’

Jen had been married for more than a year. She and her husband, Matt Handler, were extremely close and busy with their work, but they tried to take time to travel and enjoy friends. Life was really good.

“And all of a sudden, it was like, ‘You know what? It’s time,’” Jen says now. That was in July 2013.

Her parents in St. Louis had told her that whenever she was ready to search for her birth parents, they would support her. Growing up so happy and content, as an only child with loving parents, she had never felt the urge.

Yet from the time she was a little girl, certain things would intrigue her. Like the letter her birth mother had written to her when she was born.

Her parents had given her the letter, along with one from her birth father — plus the cross and St. Christopher medal — after her first Communion, when she was 8 or 9. They’d taken her to the Botanical Gardens in St. Louis on a warm spring day, and she sat on a bench and opened the letters.

The woman’s penmanship was so much like her own.

“It was like she tried really hard when she wrote,” Jen says. “When I was a kid, I tried to write every letter perfectly.”

Besides the writing, Jen always had a thing for people’s hands and how they looked. She wondered about her own.

Did they look like her hands? His?

In 2013, her cousin posted on Facebook a photo of her newborn, a little boy who resembled Jen’s adoptive dad. A spitting image of him as a baby.

I hope there are people out there who look like me, Jen thought.

She wanted to find her birth mother. Never did she think her birth parents would be together.

She sent her request and a $400 check to Catholic Charities. Because the adoption was closed, both parents would have to consent to having it opened, Jen says.

“The worst that could happen is they could say no. And I was kind of prepared for that. I would have been disappointed, but at least it would be final.”

‘She found us’

The letter came to Terri and Jim in late September.

“It was like, ‘Wow, she found us,’” Jim says now.

Terri sat down to write a return letter. She told Jen that she and Jim were married, with two children — her sister and brother — and a gaggle of relatives.

“It was amazing to know they had gotten married and a huge family’s ready to meet you,” Jen says.

Two years before, Terri had told Alissa, a young college student at the time, how she and her dad had an unplanned pregnancy when they were dating. Terri used it as a cautionary tale.

“Leave it to Mom,” Alissa says now, smiling. “It was just like her to drop a bomb to teach me a lesson.”

They had yet to tell Gian. He’s three years younger than Alissa and they worried how he would react. And he admits it was hard, that he was mad at first that he hadn’t been told. But then he realized the sacrifice his parents had made.

“Knowing the decision my mom made to give her up for adoption rather than abortion was a really hard decision,” Gian says. “It pulled her into her faith.”

The next step was to meet.

Jen and Matt drove from St. Louis to Columbia and met Jim and Terri at a restaurant in late October 2013. Jen was nervous.

“Here you are, you walk up and there are these people who you have never known in your life and you are them,” Jen says.

She could see her dark coloring in Jim. She had Terri’s smile.

Jen told them about her childhood, the parents who raised her. She asked them a few questions too. Nothing major. She didn’t want to dive too deep too fast. Plenty of time for that, she thought.

“As a virtual stranger walking into their life, I didn’t want to sit down for coffee and say, ‘Why this? Why that?’” Jen says. “I just wanted to get to know them.”

For Jim and Terri, there was nothing but joy. By the time they parted ways that day, a bond had formed.

“The pain was gone,” Jim says. “The doubt was gone. The ‘Did we make the right decision?’ was gone.

“We made the right decision, not only for our relationship but for some other family.”

Jen told them how she’d taken her St. Christopher medal with her when she needed luck but had lost it after a job interview when she left it in a pocket.

Jim was wearing his matching medal that day. He gave it to Jen.

Palm Sunday

Over the next 51/2 months, everything Terri and Jim had prayed and worked for was coming together.

Jen had found them, and the family was getting to know her. She and Terri would talk on the phone as Jen drove long miles for her job in sales.

“She just glowed,” said Mary Euston, Terri’s older sister. “She felt her family was complete.”

Alissa was wrapping up her senior year in college, looking forward to nursing school. Gian, a sophomore at Kansas State University, had overcome a childhood of extreme shyness to become a resident assistant in his dorm.

On April 15, Terri and Jim were to celebrate their 25th anniversary.

“It was like we had done our job and done it pretty well,” Jim says. “… We were going to have a whole new life together.”

But first came Palm Sunday, April 13.

Terri and Jim planned to go to Mass that evening. Alissa would probably be there in time to go.

She was headed home from Missouri State University so she and Terri could go to an open house at St. Luke’s nursing school — where Terri had gone — the next day.

Before Mass, Terri planned to pop in on her mom at Village Shalom.

“She knew her mom was dying,” Jim says. “She didn’t think she’d last out the summer.”

When Terri left the house about 12:30, she said she wouldn’t be long.

Miles outside Springfield, Alissa pulled to the side of Missouri 13. At 23, she was having chest pains. Strong ones.

I can’t be having a heart attack, she thought.

She’d been unable to sleep the night before because she felt something bad was going to happen. As she lay awake, she could also feel the stinging of a tattoo she’d gotten that day with the words “Love conquers all” in Italian on her back torso.

Now these pains.

An aspiring nurse, she checked her pulse before getting back on the highway.

In Clinton, she pulled over for a break. Checking Facebook, she read about a shooting outside Village Shalom.

Mom goes there on Sundays to see Grandma.

She called her mother’s cell. Nothing. But Mom often left her phone behind.

Alissa then called her father.

“There was a shooting at Village Shalom,” she told him.

Terri’s two older sisters, Euston and Patty McMahon, had arrived after her. They knew something had happened, but neither thought Terri was involved.

Jim started calling Terri’s phone. But he wasn’t alarmed until two detectives showed up at his door. They were there when Alissa pulled into the drive.

‘No words’

A school chaplain went to Gian’s room at K-State. The chaplain told the sophomore that there had been a shooting at Village Shalom.

Gian had just talked to his mother the day before. He told her he planned to be home the next weekend, for Easter. And he wanted to send early anniversary wishes to his parents.

“Your mom was shot,” the chaplain said. “She didn’t make it.”

Gian, who studies the Bible and is involved in a campus ministry, started to pray.

“Right away, I knew that I needed to be able to forgive this man.”

As he prayed, Jen was hundreds of miles away in St. Louis unloading her dishwasher. She hadn’t heard any news, didn’t know anything about the bloodshed outside two Jewish facilities in the Kansas City area.

Her husband was on a flight to San Francisco when the phone rang. It was a Kansas City number, one she didn’t know.

Brian Fowler, a childhood friend of Jim’s, asked to speak to her husband. She explained that he was out of town.

“Have you heard about the shooting in Kansas City today?” Fowler asked.

All day, Jen had contemplated calling Terri. She had recently seen Terri and Jim and wanted to check in with Terri on Sunday. She didn’t get a chance.

“I was finally ready to really talk,” Jen says. “They had told me they loved me a lot and I know they loved me, because I was their child. I hadn’t said it yet.

“And I had wanted to say it. I wanted to tell her I loved her.”

Fowler explained more about the day’s violence, how Terri had been on her way to see her mother. But in Jen’s mind, the initial thought was that Terri was in a coma. She remembers thinking she could fly to Kansas City and help Terri get better.

Then she heard Fowler say that her birth mother didn’t make it. She was gone.

Before Jen could call her again. Before she could say “I love you.” And though the two had said so many things to each other, so much hadn’t been said.

Jen eventually called Jim, who was there with Alissa. Gian would soon be on his way. Jen struggled and would explain it was like “a silent phone call.”

“There’s no book or script or etiquette guide for when someone is murdered by a lunatic in a parking lot,” Jen says. “You just don’t know what to do.

“What do you say to him? ‘I’m sorry’? There are no words.”

Passages

A month after the shootings, Alissa graduated from Missouri State. It’s what her mom had planned for, already reserving a restaurant in Springfield for the celebration and booking hotel rooms for family and friends.

For Alissa, she needed to feel her mom was with her.

So she glued her mom’s initials, TRL, in pink glitter along with #standagainsthate, a hashtag Alissa created shortly after Terri was killed. There was plenty of purple, her mom’s favorite color. The cap was so heavy, loaded with sentiment and glitter, that it tipped off her head as she received her diploma.

She laughs at the memory. Mom would have gotten a kick out of that.

In July, Terri’s mom, Betty Hastings, died. Family members were with her in the room, including Gian.

“Being in the room, seeing someone take their last breath, that put my faith into perspective,” he says.

In mid-December, Gian returned from Kansas State to a home bare of any decorations or holiday feel. It was starkly different from the “winter wonderland” he and Alissa grew up with each December.

The holiday meant so much to their mother. She’d spend hours opening the boxes of decorations and ornaments and putting everything in a certain place. Gian knew he needed to do something to get his dad and Alissa into the holidays, just as his mom would do.

“They didn’t have to be gung-ho like me, just a little in the Christmas spirit,” Gian says now. “It was something that helped remind me of Mom.”

He moved through the house and put trinkets and decorations exactly where his mom would. The nutcracker on the table next to the tree. The lighted village on the mantel, with the bakery and church and houses where Terri had placed them every year.

On Christmas morning, the mantel lit up the living room, where Gian had placed Terri’s robe on a chair. Alissa admits she didn’t want to get out of bed that morning, but she did because she knew it’s what her mom would have wanted. And her brother had worked so hard.

Among the ornaments Gian put on the tree was a Hallmark frame holding the only photo of the entire family: Jim and Terri, arms around each other, with their three kids. It was taken on Thanksgiving weekend, the only time all five were together.

“I didn’t realize how much it touched my dad and sister,” Gian says.

On the ornament are the words: “’Tis the Season for Family.”

‘Kind of a miracle’

Jen has her own print of that photo, a gift from Jim’s parents. It reminds her of the moments before it was taken.

“Terri gave me a big hug,” Jen says. “She said, ‘I want you to know we love you so much and I can’t believe this is happening. That this is really happening.’”

Jen goes over sentences like that, and other things Terri said to her, to keep the voice in her head. The voice that she and other family members and friends say could be so soothing.

As Alissa put it: “We all were cheated. But Jen was cheated the most. She only had six months with Mom.”

Gian agrees: “I spent a whole life with my mom. I just wish she could have had that feeling.”

They all could go to a dark place, especially Jen. Feel cheated and give in to constant anger. But they say they won’t.

“You know what? Terri wasn’t like that,” Jen says. “She was very faithful, very positive. And you know, this obviously for some reason is part of God’s grand plan and I am choosing to be grateful and see positivity in it.”

They all wanted more time. Time for Jen to say “I love you.” Time for Alissa to have a picture with her mom in her college cap and gown or tell her that she made it into her nursing school. More time for Gian to share his faith with her or to just sit and talk.

And more time for Terri and Jim to live out their lives.

“I was happy and content with what we had in life,” Jim says. “We didn’t have everything, but we didn’t want everything. … I would have lived in a cave with her.”

He and Terri had their lives planned out. They’d probably never really retire in the traditional sense. She would stay working with the kids at the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired. Jim would continue his dental practice and his work providing care for the Missouri Department of Corrections.

“Am I angry at whatever his name is? Of course,” Jim says. “Do I ever want to meet him or be in the same room with him? No, because I don’t know what I might say, don’t know what I might do. Will I ever forgive him? Probably not.”

Jim’s kids see his pain.

Gian stayed home last summer and spent time with his dad. Jen sees Jim when she can and stays in contact with her siblings. Because Alissa goes to St. Luke’s nursing school — her mother’s school — she lives at home, where she and her father can lean on each other. Love conquers all.

After Terri died, Jen thought of her St. Christopher medallion, the one she had and lost, and the second one Jim had given her. At the funeral, she gave the medal back to him. Without Terri, he would need protection more than ever.

Jim wears it around his neck. It’s a reminder of the protection he wanted for a newborn so many years ago, of the joy he and Terri felt in the days after that child called in October 2013.

The whole family thinks of the call. What if Jen hadn’t felt compelled to reach out then? What if she had waited?

“It’s kind of a miracle that I would decide to find them then and have that time together at the end,” she says. “I’d much rather have to go through this pain than to not have this time at all.”

To reach Laura Bauer, call 816-234-4944 or send email to lbauer@kcstar.com.

Scholarship fund

Shortly after the April 13 shootings, Terri LaManno’s family set up a scholarship to help provide occupational therapy for children with low vision. All donations help kids at the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired, where Terri worked for eight years. To donate to the Teresa R. LaManno Scholarship, go to www.ccvi.org or mail donations in her name to CCVI at 3101 Main St., Kansas City, MO 64111.

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