In the fall of 2000, Sharon Bruns was experimenting with a new learning model in her accounting classrooms. She would hand out quizzes and encourage her students to work together to answer them, reinforcing for each other the lessons they had learned in class. Students didn’t have to work together, of course, but they had the option.
Each time, there would be a crowd around one student’s desk: Candace Lee Williams’.
“One of the things that set Candace apart was just how nice she was, how friendly,” recalls Bruns, professor emeritus of business administration at Northeastern. “She could’ve done those quizzes all by herself, turned hers in, and left. But she always helped everyone else.”
In the summer of 2001, Williams contacted Bruns to ask about a recommendation for a scholarship to which she was applying. Happy to do it, Bruns reached out to Williams in early fall for some additional information.
“I didn’t hear anything back, which was unlike her,” Bruns says.
On Sept. 13, Bruns opened the newspaper to a shock.
Williams was among the 2,977 people who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. She’d been onboard American Airlines Flight 11 that morning. She was 20 years old and starting her third year at Northeastern at the time; young and full of ideas and plans for her future.
“She was the best of us,” says Corey Gaudioso, 30, Williams’ younger brother. “There’s never been anyone like Can. We all just knew she was going to do great things—she could’ve conquered Wall Street or something.”
She may well have been on track to do just that. Williams had recently finished a co-op at Merrill Lynch, in the financial company’s Manhattan office, where she worked from January to June, 2001.
It was Williams’ first co-op, at a company that didn’t usually hire first-time co-ops, according to Mary Kane, currently the assistant dean of external engagement and senior co-op coordinator for the D’Amore-McKim School of Business.
Twenty years ago, Kane was a co-op coordinator at Northeastern, just three years on the job. Williams was in her co-op class, and Kane helped her land the position at Merrill Lynch.
“They were so impressed with her professional maturity, her work ethic, her enthusiasm—they loved her,” Kane says. “When she left, they gave her an amazing sendoff because they wanted to have her back.” Gaudioso recalls that the financial company sent Williams home in a limousine on her last day, so eager were they to entice the young business student back.
Talking to the people who knew Williams, it’s not just her work ethic or her focus on schoolwork that they remember; it’s also her warmth, humility, and willingness to lend a hand that comes to mind.
“Can brought out the best in others,” Gaudioso says. “She was the one who got us around the kitchen table for Thanksgiving. She was on the honor roll, the Dean’s list, she was social, she was a juggernaut. Everyone loved Can.”
Kane’s recollection echoes Gaudioso’s.
“Candace was so smart, and beautiful on the inside and out,” she says. “But I think what struck me most was her appreciation for everyday life. She had this amazing smile, and she appreciated the small things as well as the big opportunities.”
Among those small things? A daily stop for coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts on the way to campus, or trips to the beach, says Erin Aliperti, Williams’ friend and roommate while they were at Northeastern.
The two met during their freshman year. As business majors, they had a few classes together, and soon realized they both lived in White Hall.
“Candace was bright and smart, and just had this good vibe about her,” Aliperti says. “You could be in a bad mood and she’d smile, tell you something you needed to hear, and it would just make you feel better. She was wise beyond her years.”
Aliperti (then Harju) and Williams would study together, sharing notes and preparing for tests. They spent a lot of time together—both were focused on getting good grades, but they laughed a lot and listened to CDs, too, Aliperti recalls—and became fast friends.
“We just clicked so easily; we were so similar on so many levels,” she says. They balanced each other out. “Candace was so even-keeled and level-headed, and it was fun to nudge her a little bit when we were together.”
They lived together for the first half of their sophomore year, then each returned home while they worked on co-op: Williams’ home in Danbury, Connecticut, was closer to New York City, and Aliperti’s home on Massachusetts’s South Shore was convenient for her job at Mutual Life Financial in Boston.
But they stayed in touch throughout their six-month placements, and found an apartment for their third year at the university—a year that is known as a “middler year” for students on a five-year track.
Aliperti and Williams moved into their shared apartment, in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, in June 2001, right after they each finished co-op. They studied hard but found time to have fun and be young, spending time on Cape Cod and enjoying everything summer had to offer.
At the time, Northeastern used a quarter system, rather than a semester system, to track academic terms. The university switched to the current semester system in 2003.
Students had a two-week break between quarters at the end of August and beginning of September. During their break in 2001, Aliperti and Williams hatched a plan to spend time together in California: Aliperti would head out during the first week off to spend time with her dad, who lived near Los Angeles. Williams would meet them a week later, and the two girls planned to spend the rest of their vacation cruising around Hollywood in a convertible, seeing the sights.
Williams’ plane, which took off from Boston’s Logan International Airport and was headed to Los Angeles International Airport, was among those hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001. It crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
As she tells the story, Aliperti is quiet for a moment. “I still carry that guilt,” she says.
The weight of Williams’ absence is heavy for everyone who knew and loved her, even 20 years later. But her light shines through in new ways, too.
Scholarships in her name were established at Northeastern and at Williams’ high school, Immaculate High School, in Connecticut. A bench in her honor sits at Immaculate, and a tree was planted for her at Terrywile Park in Danbury, as well.
A memorial stone for Williams on Northeastern’s Boston campus features poetry by the late Stuart Peterfreund, a former English professor at the university, and an annual ceremony at the memorial commemorates Williams’ life. A tree planted behind the stone grows in Williams’ name, as well.
This year, a service will be held at noon on Saturday, Sept. 11, and will include moments of reflection, a reading of the names, and remarks by students, faculty, and staff. It will be held at the Candace Lee Williams Sept. 11th Memorial Marker, which is between Ell Hall and the D’Amore McKim School of Business.
Everyone who knew her has small ways they remember Williams, as well. Kane places yellow flowers—Williams’ favorite—on the memorial stone each year around Sept. 11.
Gaudioso, who still has Williams’s original Nintendo, lives each day by the lessons his older sister taught by example: “Always try to do what’s right, never forsake your own, and walk the line,” he says. They’re lessons he plans to instill in his 8-month-old son, too.
“How do you tally a life?” Gaudioso wonders. “Can had only 20 short years, but she gave us so much in that time. It’s not by the years lived, but the contribution.”
And Aliperti finds comfort in Williams’ own words.
In the tumultuous days after Sept. 11, 2001, Aliperti struggled to find the words to say at a memorial ceremony on campus. At their quiet apartment, and still reeling from her own loss, Aliperti went into her friend’s room and played some of her CDs, searching for comfort. She came across a journal Williams had started for a school project. In the back were her own ruminations, the latest written only a few weeks before.
Williams had mused about everyone in her life and what they’d taught her. Aliperti found Williams’ reflections of their friendship, filled with memories of all the fun they’d had that summer, and notes to herself about how to live life to the fullest.
Feeling like it was the direction she needed, Aliperti says she read Williams’ words at that first memorial service.
“It was like she was there, telling me, ‘This is what you say. You tell these people how much I loved them.’”
But it was the final sentence in Williams’ journal that Aliperti remembers word for word, all these years later: “These are the angels in my life,” she wrote. “They will always be there for me, and if not, I will always be there for them.”