They were eight strangers who shared a common wish – to help others by donating their bodies to the University of Delaware College of Health Sciences after their death.

One worked as a doctor, researching air pollution and sudden infant death. One was a master builder, known for his expertise in carpentry and mechanics. One was a doting grandmother who created her own line of reproduction tin toys that she sold around the country. Another worked almost 30 years as a car salesman.

On Sunday, grateful physical therapy and athletic training students took the time to honor the contributions of these selfless men and women during the second-annual UD Anatomical Donor Memorial Ceremony. Held in the Audion in the Tower at STAR, the student-run event included moving musical and vocal tributes as well as heartfelt thanks from students and graduates.

Andrew Sprague, a graduate of the top-ranked PT program and a teaching assistant in the gross anatomy class, said the word ‘donor’ doesn’t fully capture the contribution made toward teaching the next generation of physical therapists and athletic trainers.

“Your family and friends are the silent teachers for our physical therapy students. Like every good teacher, they had the respect and gratitude of the students,” Sprague said. “It is impossible to separate the person from the gift. Your loved ones are with us every step of the course.”

The ceremony was created last year to provide an outlet for students to publicly express their gratitude to donors and their families. This year’s event honored George F. Garrett, Mary Porter Gillaspy, David Mage, Nickolaus Muller, Michael D. Nolette, Winthrop “Toby” Smith, William D. Whisler Jr. and Richard “Bop” Williams. The name of each donor was read aloud and a candle of remembrance lit in their honor. 

Molly Zabilowicz, a member of the athletic training Class of 2019, said her functional anatomy course was one of the most incredible experiences of her academic career.

“We didn’t just learn about anatomy. We got to imagine the lives these people led, the stress on their knees, the strains on their muscles, the callouses on their hands,” she said, adding that the hands-on experience helped strengthen her own understanding of nerves and muscle innervation. “This is something I could have never gotten from a textbook or Google. We can’t thank you enough for the gifts you gave us. We will be forever grateful.”

It wasn’t just the students who were grateful. Lauren Sheldon, the granddaughter of Richard “Bop” Williams, shared his love of collecting antiques and watching old Hollywood movies. “Thank you for having this service for him,” she said.

College of Health Sciences Dean Kathleen S. Matt said it was fitting for the ceremony to be held in the Audion at the Tower at STAR, a space intentionally designed for inspiration and innovation. “We honor families who have so generously donated their loved ones so our students and faculty could be inspired,” she said.

The ceremony also provided an in-depth look at the memorial labyrinth that will be constructed over the summer near the Health Sciences Complex as a permanent remembrance of the precious gift given by anatomical donors. The idea for the labyrinth came from graduates of the Doctor of Physical Therapy program, who wanted to honor donors in a lasting way while also offering a place for students, faculty, staff and the community to reflect on life.  

Construction of the hardscape labyrinth will be completed in August. But before that, participants at the ceremony had the chance to meander a canvas labyrinth that was set up in the North Atrium of the Health Sciences Complex by members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Newark.

“Walking a labyrinth can be a metaphor for our spiritual journey. As we physically wind to the center of the pattern, we are symbolically moving to our centers,” said Karen Barker, president of the UUFN. “A walking mediation helps us find inner peace, managed stress and heal.”

This is a rendering of the labyrinth that will be constructed this summer in front of the STAR Health Sciences Complex.

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