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The Journal Gazette

  • Tess Gordon congratulates New Haven Middle School sixth grader Madison Eagleson on Monday after she received the Sarah Gordon Mental Attitude Award, named in honor of her sister who died of cancer in 1989. (Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette)

  • A plaque at New Haven Middle School contains a picture of Sarah Gordon and the names of past winners of the award named in her honor.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019 1:00 am

Award keeps memory alive

School honors sixth grader who died in 1989

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

As New Haven Middle School sixth grader Sarah Gordon battled the cancer that would eventually end her life, she worried about being forgotten.

The school – a source of support during her illness – hasn't let that happen, even 30 years after her death and without much of the family's involvement.

On Monday, New Haven Middle continued a tradition begun the year Sarah died: it honored a student with the Sarah Gordon Mental Attitude Award.

“It's amazing and speaks to how respected she was,” Sarah's oldest sibling, Tess Gordon, said of the award's longevity.

Gordon attended the brief lunchtime presentation and congratulated this year's recipient, Madison Eagleson, 12. Students Isaiah Bechtold, Yug Patel and Samantha Pio were also nominated by teachers.

Though embarrassed by the attention, Madison said she was happy to receive the award.

It recognizes students who show a sincere effort to achieve their best; a positive attitude toward their peers, faculty, staff and school; and good citizenship to the community at large, among other criteria.

“It's a tremendous honor for these kids,” Principal Chad Houser said.

Sarah's other sister, Rachel Rowley of Spokane, Washington, is particularly touched by the tradition.

She long thought of herself in the context of someone who lost her sister – her best friend – and didn't take steps to ensure Sarah wouldn't be forgotten like she feared, Rowley said by phone Monday.

Rowley was astounded upon learning the school has been keeping Sarah's memory alive through the award while she was “just surviving” Sarah's loss, she said. She couldn't attend Monday's ceremony and suggested Gordon go instead.

Previous winners' names are displayed on a plaque in a trophy case outside the main office.

“She was a sweetheart,” Gordon said while looking at the plaque, which also contains a black-and-white photograph of Sarah.

It would have been easy for Sarah – who lost her hair and experienced a significant change in her appearance – to feel sorry for herself, but she never did that, Gordon said. Instead, her sister stayed involved with school and maintained a positive attitude, inspiring teachers and classmates.

Sarah never played the victim, Rowley said. She remembered her sister's selflessness with her Make-A-Wish request: Sarah asked for a computer so her family could have it after she died.

Even now, Gordon said, it's difficult to have a bad day when she reflects on what Sarah went through.

Sarah, the fourth of five children, suffered from a tumor that began in her brain stem and spread throughout her body. Her unsuccessful battle with cancer attracted attention throughout northeast Indiana and northwest Ohio, according to a Journal Gazette article published after her death in January 1989.

A letter she wrote to friends and teachers about a month before she died appears in the 1988-89 school yearbook. In it, Sarah said she didn't immediately understand the seriousness of her illness.

“As soon as I started to understand what was going on, I realized how important life is, not to mention how short, but it doesn't take an illness to understand life,” Sarah wrote. “We should just take life day by day and appreciate the things we have, because they're not going to be there forever.”

School personnel said the Sarah Gordon Mental Attitude Award will continue next year, when the sixth grade will be part of New Haven Intermediate School. Sarah's family also plans to establish a scholarship in her memory.

Gordon didn't hesitate when asked what Sarah would think about Monday's award presentation.

“This would make her day,” she said.

asloboda@jg.net