XENIA — September means sunflowers and sunflowers mean Doug Cherry.
“He loved sunflowers,” Barbara Cherry Mills, of Beavercreek, said of the brother she lost during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “It’s so great this time of year that the sunflowers are blooming.”
Like the giant yellow flowers he so loved, Cherry, too, was larger than life.
“He knew it and he used it in a really great way,” Mills said. “My brother was such fun. Maybe the funniest person I ever met in my whole entire life.”
In a book bound by photos of Cherry — playing with his parents and big sisters in Terrace Park, swimming at Mariemont High School, laughing with his Ohio Wesleyan fraternity brothers, marrying his bride and holding their three little children — the ones who loved him most describe him, giving only brief mention to the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
They call him a good listener, an amazing storyteller. He was charming and fearless, fiercely competitive — yet genuine, honest, caring. Over and over, his friends note his humor.
“He was the only person I’ve ever seen literally rolling on the ground laughing,” Jeff Weech, a high school friend, said.
“Doug … was a comic. He possessed a self-assurance that was best displayed in his hilarious style of physical humor. When you were with ‘Papa,’ you couldn’t prepare yourself for what could happen next,” Fred Wynne, a buddy from college, said. “At any moment, he would contort his face, body, voice, and move quickly from one character to another … Doug could entertain a room of people and keep them laughing for as long as he wanted.”
Friendships just came easy to Cherry.
“Everyone wanted to be his friend,” Mills continued. “He loved the underdog long before it was popular, which is one of the things I feel most proud of. He felt a great deal of compassion for the overlooked kid … He just lived it.”
In his career, Cherry succeeded — because he out-worked everyone.
Vice president of the professional services group at Aon, an insurance company, Cherry was working in the South Tower when a hijacked airliner crashed into the building.
“He loved New York City. He was a really happy man when he died,” Mills said. “He had a beautiful marriage, a beautiful wife. He loved being a dad more than anything else in the world. He was successful at work, genuinely happy … We don’t have to look back and regret anything.”
Mills was in her Xenia home that blue-skied morning. It was her son’s 10th birthday. She had the TV on. But she didn’t panic — her bother traveled on Tuesdays.
“I called my sister-in-law (Sarah) and she said she couldn’t talk because she was on her way out the door,” Mills explained.
Sarah stayed. Cherry called.
“It was a great blessing for everyone … that he didn’t get the answering machine,” Mills said. “And then we just watched it in slow motion. It became obvious within 48 hours that the rubble wasn’t going to be filled with survivors.”
Mills, then a Xenia Rotarian, called the rotary president and asked that the group pray for the country at their meeting that day.
“It was great solace to me to know that my friends and neighbors could be instantly together,” she said. “If you multiply that by the number of people praying at the same time in the country — it’s a powerful feeling.”
The anguish of that day never goes away. But Mills wishes that feeling of unity would come back.
“It was everybody. It wasn’t just New York. It was on the streets of Xenia, Ohio. The overarching sentiment was: This is a good country. I’m going to care for my family, love my neighbors,” Mills said. “The country as a whole felt a lot of things — heartfelt, loving, generous, patriotic. There was a sense that things will never be the same. As time goes by, those feelings wane. I’m sorry to see that sentiment go.”
But Doug Cherry’s life is more than the day he died.
Mills wears a silver bracelet, bearing the name of a man who was funny, and driven, and kind, and so much more.
“It helps me bring my brother along with me,” she said, “to finish the life he didn’t get to finish.”
Last week, she visited the church where they grew up, leaving three sunflowers on his ashes.
This week, as the sunflower fields fill with neighbors, she hopes they’ll remember the way they felt 18 years ago, the way the flag flew, the day the country came together.
At least before the bloom is over.
Contact Anna Bolton at 937-502-4498 or follow @annadbolton on Facebook.