Trumbull grad remembers friend who died in 9/11
For Jonathan Weil, the memory of Sept. 11, 2001 can be recalled, vividly, as if it happened yesterday.
The 1986 graduate of Trumbull High School was three blocks from the towers when they fell on that infamous day. While the second-year teacher and his classroom full of high school English students were able to evacuate the area safely, not everybody working in downtown Manhattan was as fortunate, including his best friend and fellow THS grad Jeffrey Wiener who was working in the north tower near to point of impact when the first plane hit.
“That day is pretty well burned into my brain,” said Weil, who less than a year later had established a scholarship in his late friend’s name that has gone on to benefit a dozen Trumbull students since the fateful events of 9/11.
“I can blink my eyes and be back there,” Weil added. “I had students come up through the grades who experienced it at different ages — they were in elementary school when it happened or middle school — and I had to relive it with them.”
Since then Weil has left New York City and relocated with his wife Beth to Northhampton, Mass., where he still teaches English to high school students.
Every year, he makes the two-and-half hour pilgrimage to his home town to present the scholarship’s check to the student receiving it. He shakes the student’s hand and tells the winner a little bit about Wiener, who was the Class of 1986’s valedictorian.
However, that late spring tradition is being threatened as the balance of the Jeffrey Wiener Scholarship Fund is almost exhausted.
“Education meant a lot to Jeff,” Weil said. “He wanted to make the world a better place, and he was truly a positive and optimistic thinker.
“He worked really hard to become a leader, and he led by example,” he added. “He was a gentle soul who knew how to encourage others.”
With the possibility of the fund’s not handing out an award for the first time since 2002, Weil is making a push toward the Trumbull community to raise some money to restock its balance.
“When he was killed, at first, I was really angry because he was only 32 years old and I kept thinking, ‘here’s this guy who hadn’t reached his full potential,” Weil said. “But then I started to realize what a happy guy he was and all that he was able to do with his time here on Earth.
“He was the quintessential good friend — he always stayed in touch with THS people and was always very interested in what you were doing,” he added. “He loved his time in Trumbull.”
Staying in touch
Weil said he and Wiener first met in middle school and maintained a friendship throughout high school, where his late friend blossomed into a “role model student.”
The pair each had jobs at the Trumbull Mall growing up — Weil at a luggage store and Wiener at a record store — and shared a mutual passion for music, playing in the school’s marching band.
“He had this incredible work ethic ever since high school,” Weil recalled. “He was there early that day, working hard.”
While Weil has plenty of fond memories of his late friend, there’s one that he believes encapsulates the essence of the man who he believes could have gone on to do anything with his life.
“I didn’t stay in touch with too many people from high school,” Weil said. “I got to college and I was ready to move on; I really didn’t want to engage with anyone from the past, but Jeff went out of his way to make sure we stayed in touch — writing letters, sending post cards, calling me on the phone.
“He really put in the effort because friendship meant something to him, and that’s always stayed with me ever since then,” he added. “What I realized pretty early into college is that I had a true friend — someone who really cared about me, that I had grown up with, and someone I eventually began to model myself after as I began to move into my early and late 20s.
“Looking at this thoughtful, reflective person growing into his own made it less scary for me to do the same thing.”
Weil moved away from Connecticut, where he attended school at Wesleyan University, to Pennsylvania to work in publishing before realizing that he wanted to become a teacher.
After a few years of schooling, he and Beth had moved into New York City where Wiener was working at Marsh & McLennan Companies.
“We had always stayed in touch but those last few years is when we really re-established our close friendship,” said Weil, who stood as best man at Wiener’s wedding.
“We worked three blocks away from each other so we were always getting dinner,” he added.
What Weil remembers most about his friend in those days of living in the city in their early 30s was how curious Wiener was about everything they talked about.
“He was always asking questions; always asking about how my teaching job was going and how I thought education could be improved in New York,” Weil said. “He really wanted to know what I had to say, and he was tremendously supportive...
“I could have seen him teaching young people later in life,” he added. “That or something with animal conservation. He was fascinated by that; he always had a scientific mind.”
A human moment
A Princeton graduate with an undergraduates degree in aeronautical engineering, Wiener received a master’s degree from the Stern School of Business at NYU before ascending the corporate ladder at Marsh and McLennan.
Weil said he admired how his childhood friend moved through his 20s and into his early 30s with such grace.
Weil remembered getting a call the summer before the terrorist attacks. On the other end of the line was Wiener, who was in need of guidance.
“He and his wife Heidi had a couple of cats and they had to put one of them to sleep and he was very broken up about it,” Weil said. “I just remember having this very long conversation with him and he kept asking, ‘Did I do the right thing?’ It stands out to me now because I was in the rare role of mentoring him in that moment.
“It was such a human moment that I’ll always remember,” he added. “Jeff had this rare combination of being extremely driven and also being someone who felt things so deeply.”
Weil called Wiener “a man among men,” which made the aftermath of 9/11 all that more tragic.
“He was an incredibly kind and sweet person,” Weil said. “I still haven’t met anyone like him — he was always engaged in everything I said or that my wife said to him...
“At his funeral, both his high school and college friends spoke about how strongly they felt about him and how he always just took such an interest in their lives.”
Weil and his wife spent the following days after the attacks living with Heidi, who has since remarried and moved to Colorado.
The English teacher said he could see the collision from the window of his classroom.
“We weren’t allowed to leave at first, and then we had to evacuate the building really fast as the first tower came down,” Weil said. “It was a very scary moment; people were covered in dust and it was just this mass exodus of New Yorkers.
“There must have been hundreds of thousands of people down there,” he added. “And I just remember feeling very strange, like a refugee.”
It took him a while to come to terms with what had just occurred three blocks north of his school.
“I knew what had happened but I remember looking back over my shoulder as we were leaving and looking at this cloud of smoke where the towers were and I asked another teacher, ‘do you think they’re really gone?’ I was in such disbelief,” Weil said.
He’s extremely grateful that he had his kids in that moment to distract him from realizing the personal horror the event would inflict on him.
“Having the students kept me sane,” he said. “I had a responsibility; something to focus on and that really saved me.
“I tried to reach Jeff to see if he had gotten out; I was worrying like crazy,” he added. “But that hope began to diminish and in the following days it became pretty apparent there would be no rescue.”
Although Weil will always remember that day, he said that some freshman students he now teaches weren’t even born yet.
“It’s history to them — they weren’t alive for it or weren’t old enough to remember it,” he said.
“It’ll always be part of our country’s history and culture,” he added. “And I will acknowledge the anniversary every year, but I won’t spend much time talking to them about my personal experience.”
Even now, he wonders how Wiener would have responded to the attack that claimed his life, and the wars that followed it.
“I’ve found myself thinking over the years that if there was one person I’d want to talk to about it, then it would have been Jeff,” Weil said.
“He was an extremely tolerant person,” he added. “I would love to hear what he’d have to say.”
Despite his friend’s premature death, Weil said Wiener’s legacy lives on in him — and all the recipients of the scholarship that was forged in his honor.
“What we had was this really wonderful childhood connection, and I think what I’ve learned is that those hometown connections really mean something,” he said. “We shared so many memories together in Trumbull — the trips to Florida with the band, playing at the football games, graduating and getting our diplomas.
“Those are the things that I didn’t care about when I got to college, but now are memories that I’ll never forget.”
Any donations to the Jeffrey Wiener Scholarship Fund should be send to the Trumbull High School Scholarship Foundation at 72 Strobel Road, Trumbull, CT, 06611 or can be submitted online through the scholarship’s GoFundMe Campaign at www.gofundme.com/JeffreyWiener