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In Remembrance of 9/11 Victim Peter Ortale

Professor Michael Gillespie recalls a former student who died in the Sept. 11 attacks, and explores the struggle between good and evil. 

Ten years ago, more than 3,000 people from many different countries had their lives snuffed out by an act of evil.  The thousands who died in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, in the Pentagon and aboard the four planes that were the instruments of this destruction remain, for the most part, faceless to us. On this anniversary, I would like to call back to memory one of the dead, our former student Peter Ortale.

Peter was a great deal like many Duke students.  He came to Duke from a working-class, Catholic family in northeast Philadelphia to play lacrosse and get an education.  He was good looking, with dark brown hair and dark eyes. He didn't care much about how he dressed, usually showing up to class in a battered sweatshirt.  He was a great athlete and especially excelled at lacrosse, winning all-ACC honors and serving as captain of the team.  He had an exuberant personality.  He liked to party and he loved to compete.  He clearly enjoyed the social life at Duke.

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What distinguished Peter from almost all of the other students I have had at Duke over the last 30 years, however, was his utter dedication to learning and his complete indifference to grades.  Peter always wanted to take the most difficult and challenging courses, from my graduate seminar on European nihilism to Russian.  As his adviser, I often suggested that he give himself a break, but he always gave me a little quiet smile and told me he'd think about it, and we both knew that meant no.  Those courses were one more mountain to climb and Peter had to measure himself against it.  Even though he knew he couldn't make it to the top, he was happy with the views he got from one or another precipice on the way.

peter ortale
Peter Ortale

The other thing that set Peter apart was his constant efforts to impart this same enthusiasm for learning to his friends and particularly the members of his lacrosse team.  He was always hauling them along to one class or another, encouraging them to join him in the serious pursuit not of good grades or a college degree but of a challenging and fruitful education.  He brought several of them to my various classes and while they seldom had any preparation for the subject matter, Peter always managed to convince them they would be better for the challenge.

After Duke, Peter traveled for a while, played lacrosse on a variety of club teams in both the U.S. and abroad, and went to work on Wall Street.  He was 37 and working for Euro Brokers on the 84th floor of the South Tower on Sept. 11, 2001.  After the attack, he made three phone calls: to his wife, his mother and a friend in California before heading for the stairs.  He did not reach the bottom.

I remember writing a letter of recommendation for Peter in 1987.  I don't remember all of the details and the letter itself is long since lost or laid aside.  However, I do remember remarking that if I ever had a son, I would want him to be like Peter.  My son Tom was born in the fall after Peter graduated and is actually somewhat like Peter.  I don't know that a father could ask for anything more.  I only hope that he becomes as good a human being as Peter and has as positive an impact on those around him.

I have often confronted the question in class whether there is a real difference between good and evil, or whether all values are not relative to particular cultures or particular historical periods.  It seems to me that the events of Sept. 11th provide us with a simple but concrete answer to this question, and that this answer is captured in the differences between Peter Ortale and those who murdered him.  Peter took great joy in helping and encouraging others; Osama Bin Laden and his henchmen took great pleasure in killing them.  Where decent human beings mourn and cry, they celebrate and laugh.

In killing Peter and all the others, these murderers struck a blow against humanity and against good men and women everywhere.  As dramatic as this blow was, however, I cannot help but believe that the good that Peter and all the other victims of 9/11 did in life will ultimately outshine the evil of those who destroyed them.