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A Hometown divide

Even in the small Pennsylvania town where Terri Schiavo grew up, there is no consensus as to what her fate should be.

By VANESSA GEZARI
Published March 25, 2005


HUNTINGDON VALLEY, Penn. - In the women's room at the local library, they stood arguing near the sinks, their voices echoing off the blue-tiled floor.

" ... But she could come out of it," Barbara Bernstein said. "They showed her father talking and she was gurgling."

"Do babies gurgle?" Linda Braun asked. "Does it mean they understand?"

Bernstein and Braun have been friends for 25 years. For even longer, they have lived in the neighborhood where Terri Schiavo grew up, a web of oak- and maple-lined cul-de-sacs edged with generous single-family homes a half hour north of central Philadelphia.

Braun, 59, bowled weekly with Mary Schindler when the family lived here in the 1970s and '80s. She says she thinks Schiavo should have been allowed to die long ago. Bernstein, 61, said she felt the same, until she saw a program on CNN this week about a woman in a vegetative state who eventually recovered. Now, she said, she's not sure.

"This woman said, "I was screaming and you didn't hear me,"' Bernstein said. "But whether she's in there and can't get out or not, 15 years is a long time to be trapped."

In Lower Moreland Township, where the Schindlers lived, Republicans outnumber Democrats and most people call themselves conservatives. Yet they take pride in their political independence: In November's presidential election, they gave Sen. John Kerry a 300-vote edge over President Bush.

Across Huntingdon Valley, which bleeds into three townships and two counties, and in the neighboring town of Southampton, where Schiavo and her family went to church, Republicans like Paul Liebold, who voted for Bush, say the president was wrong to sign a bill aimed at saving her.

"I think if you could question her, she wouldn't want to be around," said Liebold, 74, a retired car dealer. "You know, your life won't be your own if they keep going like this. They'll come into your home, too!"

At the horseshoe-shaped counter in the Robin Hood Restaurant, where Liebold sipped coffee, Viola Springer said she watched, astonished, as Congress convened a midnight session to pass the Schiavo bill. She saw it on C-Span.

"It was ridiculous," said Springer, 71, a registered Republican. "Pull the plug! Who would choose to live like that?"

Springer's husband, Jim, said the government has better things to do, like getting cheap prescription drugs to senior citizens and taking care of veterans.

"I've got to take $13,000 out of my savings to buy stuff that keeps me alive," Jim Springer, 72, grumbled, "while this bimbo down there is basically dead!"

"That's right," Viola Springer said. "It seems the priorities are wrong."

At the Robin Hood, where regulars meet for three-egg breakfasts and early bird dinner specials, no one remembers the Schindlers. Yet all week, they have been talking to relatives, calling lawyers, gathering information about living wills and durable powers of attorney.

Liebold asked his lawyer about a will and learned the lawyer was catching up on his own. Richard Harvey, a 59-year-old oil-truck driver, added a living will after his wife died recently. Stephen Strock, a dentist, has had one for years, but said he hopes the Schiavo case will convince his wife to make hers.

Across the dining room, a picture window looked out on Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, where the Schindlers worshiped and Terri and Michael Schiavo were married. Inside the church, candles burned before a statue of St. Teresa of Avila, for whom Schiavo was named. A bulletin board asked parishioners to pray for her and e-mail Jeb Bush.

"Please act now to save Terri Schiavo from being starved and dehydrated to death," begged a posting from the Pro-Life Union of Southeastern Pennsylvania stapled to the board. It calls Michael Schiavo "abusive," denies that Terri Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state and says that she can laugh, cry, speak and recognize her parents.

Florida courts have ruled Schiavo doesn't exhibit any voluntary action or cognition "of any kind."

When Schiavo was a teenager, she and her family lived a short drive from the church, on Red Wing Lane in a neighborhood called Albidale. Their old house is a sturdy white two-story with wooden shutters and a fir tree in the front yard. On a recent morning, no one answered the door.

At Archbishop Wood High School, where Schiavo was a student, a marquee reads: "Terri Schiavo Class of 1981 We Pray That You May Live." For days, the school has mentioned her - along with a graduate recovering from a car accident and a student whose wife is expecting triplets - during morning prayers broadcast throughout the school on closed-circuit TV. Priests and teachers say she should be kept alive, but students are less certain.

"She has no brain waves," said Lauren Heenan, an 18-year-old in a tie-dyed T-shirt. School was out for Holy Week, and no one was wearing uniforms. A group of seniors sat in an upstairs classroom, eating pizza and planning a retreat.

"If it were me, I wouldn't want it," Heenan said. "You can't do anything. You're just lying there for the rest of your life. You have a thing stuck down your throat. It can't be comfortable."

What about Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed, asked Nick Minio, 18. They didn't kill him.

"My aunt has a feeding tube. She slurs her speech, but she's alive," said Minio, who wore a white baseball cap and a diamond earring. His mother went to school with Schiavo. He said he doesn't think Michael Schiavo cares about her.

"He's trying to make it seem like he's doing what's best for her by having her killed," Minio said. "But you'd think if he loved her that he'd want to keep her around."

In Archbishop Wood's green and gold 1981 yearbook, Theresa Marie Schindler is a round-faced girl with an open smile and perfectly-feathered blonde hair. She is remembered as "very quiet, kind of reserved," said Father Chris Walsh, the school chaplain.

"To look at the yearbook, you wouldn't even recognize her," Walsh said. "She was very heavyset, very different."

He sat down to return a call to CNN. June Matwijec, who teaches morality to 150 juniors, stepped into his office. Her eyes moistened as she spoke of Schiavo.

"I don't think the government was wrong to get involved," she said. "Isn't government's role to protect society? And she's part of society."

Some believers disagree. Just south of the Schindlers' old neighborhood, a spired stone cathedral rises from a field. This is the tiny borough of Bryn Athyn, an island in the middle of Huntingdon Valley, home to a congregation of the New Church, a Christian sect inspired by the 18th century theologian Emanuel Swedenborg.

The New Church congregants believe death is only a transition from one world to the next, in which one consciousness drops away and another comes into view, said Rev. John Odhner, a New Church minister. In the next life, he said, an individual is known by the quality of her heart.

"We don't want to play God, but we don't want to be kept alive by heroic measures either," Odhner said. "I guess most of us would think, calling Congress back into session, I hope they don't do that for me."

Vanessa Gezari can be reached at 727 893-8803 or vgezari@sptimes.com