The following article originally appeared in Tar Heel Monthly in May of 2002. See below for an update on the story.
The proposal was perfect. That wasn't a surprise, since Ryan Kohart was the consummate planner. First, he asked Melissa White's father for her hand in marriage. The proposal would take place on the island of Capri in Italy, and Kohart even told his future father-in-law exactly what day it would happen. Nothing to chance. Everything perfect.
Kohart had spent a semester studying in Italy, so he was the perfect tour guide for White, his girlfriend of two years, when the pair went back to Italy for a nine-day vacation last summer. He showed her around Florence, and then they traveled to Positano, a gleaming city on the coast considered one of the most romantic places in the world.
Then it was off to the island of Capri. On top of a mountain, looking out over a nearly Carolina-blue ocean, Kohart asked White to marry him. She said yes, of course. That was all part of the plan.
"It was possibly the most perfect proposal you can imagine," White said. "It was just like him. Everything we did together was always perfect."
Kohart's life followed a specific plan. Growing up in Garden City, New York, a bedroom community of New York City on Long Island, he was a lacrosse standout. In Garden City, kids pick up lacrosse sticks the same way that kids in Chapel Hill pick up basketballs, and the area had a thriving youth lacrosse league. By fifth grade, he was already quite proficient with the stick. There was a long Kohart lacrosse tradition in Garden City, as an uncle had been on a state champion team at Garden City High. Ryan duplicated the feat as a senior. Four Kohart brothers would eventually play major college lacrosse.
Older brother Geoffrey Kohart, Jr. attended Johns Hopkins on a lacrosse scholarship but had friends who went to North Carolina. After a visit to Chapel Hill to see them, Kohart returned and told his lacrosse-playing brothers that they would be foolish not to consider playing for the Tar Heels if they were recruited by them. "When we were being recruited, he told us, 'Don't be stupid, go to Carolina,'" Brett Kohart remembered.
Carolina wound up with two Kohart brothers, not just one. Ryan's freshman year was 1995, when he was the co-recipient of the Jay Gallagher Award, which is given to the outstanding freshman player in the lacrosse program. The next fall, he was joined by Brett, who was a Carolina standout from 1996-99.
"It was terrific," said their father, Geoffrey Kohart, Sr. "We drove down in the spring to almost every game. We didn't miss many, either home or away. We still have friends that we see from those teams. Lacrosse almost seems like a little fraternity."
Brett was even more highly recruited than Ryan, and by virtue of his position, Brett, a midfielder, received more accolades than his brother, a defenseman. In lacrosse, midfielders score the goals. Defensemen do the dirty work.
That's what made it even more special when the Tar Heels played a road game at Hofstra to close out the 1997 season. After 17 straight years of making the postseason, Carolina had an 0-3 ACC record and the team already knew they would miss the NCAA Tournament. But their season finale would be a special one for the Kohart brothers. Their high school games had been played at Hofstra Stadium, the same place that would host the season finale. A bevy of local family and friends were on hand to watch the game. The Tar Heels pulled out a 10-4 victory with some surprising offensive contributions.
"Ryan was bringing the ball downfield, and nobody picked him up," Brett said. "Right after he shot it, he got his clock cleaned. He scored, but he was just laying there on the ground. And then all of a sudden you saw his two arms pop up. No matter how hard he was hit, he always got up with a smile on his face."
Brett Kohart remembers September 11: "I got up around 8:30 or 8:45 and went online. The first thing that flashed up on AOL were the towers burning. I kind of freaked out, but I had forgotten he was up that high. Then the power went out and all the cell phones went dead. All you could hear were sirens. I lived on the Upper East Side and it was nuts. I live right by the Tri-Borough Bridge and it was gridlock. All I could see was smoke coming up. We pretty much kind of knew, but we had hope. What else have you got?"
Kohart captained the Tar Heel laxers in his senior year. Elected by his teammates, he presided over the team at a difficult time for Carolina lacrosse. After years of winning national championships and competing with the elite of the sport, the Tar Heels were suddenly having trouble even winning games in the ACC. Virginia was gaining a reputation as a powerhouse in the sport, stealing some of the limelight from Carolina.
By the time the team held their end-of-season banquet, it was a somewhat fractured squad. It had been a difficult time period for the program, which would get even more bad news in the fall when Kevin Reichardt was killed in the Henderson Street shootings. Despite a bid to the NCAA Tournament, it almost seemed that there was more bad news coming out of the Tar Heel lacrosse program than good news.
It was with that backdrop that Ryan Kohart took the podium at his final men's lacrosse banquet and gave what was by all accounts a classy and eloquent speech.
"The team was in turmoil and had had a tough season," said his father. "Some people were pointing at the coach. But he told the juniors who were soon to be seniors that they had to look at themselves and work with the coaching staff to make the program better. He really came across positively. He was always that kind of person who people looked up to. He always did the right thing."
Another thing he always did was spend the summer in the Hamptons. It was something people from that area of the state did naturally, like Triangle residents making their annual trip to North Carolina's beaches.
The summer of 1998 turned out to be more than just the typical summer, because it was then that Kohart met Melissa White. A student at Holy Cross, White also spent most of her summers in the Hamptons. Ryan was earning money parking cars at a beach club, and their paths crossed.
"He was so thoughtful and caring of others," White said. "He was so sweet and so kind. He was a perfect little gentleman."
Kohart finished his degree at Carolina the next fall semester while simultaneously dating White, who completed her studies at Holy Cross the next spring. After graduation, it was time for the next phase of Kohart's plan.
Geoffrey Kohart, Sr., remembers September 11: "I work on Wall Street, and I couldn't see the building, but I could see the debris. I started calling him on the phone and there was no answer. I was with a couple of people from my office and we started over there, and didn't get halfway there before the second tower collapsed. It was a huge wall of white smoke and powder.
"We headed east and had to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to get out of Manhattan. This was about 30 minutes after the plane had hit, and the building came down while we were on the bridge. All the emergency vehicles were on the bridge. It was a bizarre scene that you never thought you'd be in.
"We thought he had a chance to get down because the North Tower was up for quite a long time. I walked through Brooklyn and got a train to where we live. All our family had gathered there. I said to my wife, Joy, that we just have to be lucky.
"Then it was two or three days of them saying that people had been sent to different hospitals or here or there, and it was just a difficult time. Everyone was telephoning. What we eventually realized was that where those planes hit, anyone above there just didn't have a chance, because the planes were filled with jet fuel. Once we realized that, we went from hoping to coping."
Working in New York City was always in Ryan Kohart's plan. He had interned on Wall Street on several occasions, and his father worked there as well. Within two weeks of graduation from Carolina he had a job as a junior equities trader, and he proceeded to get all the necessary licenses. After fulfilling the necessary requirements, he moved to an attractive job at Cantor Fitzgerald, where he worked in the North Tower of the World Trade Center every day.
Established in 1945, Cantor had evolved into a global financial services conglomerate. It occupied 250,000 square feet of space over five floors of the WTC, sharing room with eSpeed, its subsidiary for electronic trading. It was a high-pressure environment, but the daily grind also created a family atmosphere.
"The type of person who worked there was exactly who Ryan was," White said. "They were so driven professionally but also had so many outside interests. On the outside it would look like work came first, but really it was family and friends who came way before that. Everybody there was just what you would call your typical great guy."
658 of those lives perished on the morning of September 11. Ryan Kohart was one of them. Garden City lost 21 citizens, the most of any local community. Occasionally, Geoffrey Kohart sees a neighbor on his block riding his bike with his three sons. The neighbor's wife, who Kohart used to see regularly on the train into the city, died in the attacks.
Ryan's memorial service, like the hearts of those in the area, overflowed. The main floor of the Cathedral of Incarnation, which holds about 800 people, was packed. The basement level was filled to capacity. Estimates put the crowd at between 1300 and 1400 people. The staggering attendance represented less than half of the lives lost on the 11th.
Almost immediately, the Kohart family began looking for a suitable memorial. White remembered a conversation she and her fiancé had had when planning their future.
"Everyone was asking me what Ryan's charity was and where they should donate, and we just thought the lacrosse scholarship would be a good idea," she said. "He had always wanted to give back something to Carolina because he had loved it so much, and he wanted to do that through a lacrosse scholarship."
A fund was established almost immediately. In their talks, Ryan and Melissa had always imagined it as a full scholarship. The initial goal was simply to fund a half-scholarship, which involved a still-daunting total of $75,000. In less than six months, the Ryan Kohart Memorial Scholarship Fund sprinted past the half-scholarship mark and now is nearing $120,000, just $30,000 away from Kohart's dream of being able to fund a scholarship for a lucky Tar Heel lacrosse player.
Donations have come from a variety of places. In lieu of giving wedding favors, one couple made a contribution to the scholarship and put notes on every table at their reception indicating their donation and the address where guests could follow suit.
"It has been very unique, as was the incident that spurred its creation," said Sue Walsh, the Educational Foundation's vice president for endowment. "Generally, when you do a memorial scholarship, you have a few individuals donate and you get up to a couple thousand dollars. It's amazing the different types of fund-raisers that have been held. Everyone in our office who has come in contact with the family has gotten great strength from their fortitude."
The lives of his family and friends go on, even while it sometimes seems that they, too, stopped on September 11. On May 11 in Garden City a memorial lacrosse game was held and Ryan's high school number was retired, the first number ever to be so honored by the school. Brett, who was spurred by the tragic events to follow his dream as a songwriter and musician, has played several benefit concerts with his band, Acquiesce. The group recently raised almost $10,000 for the scholarship fund with concerts in Chapel Hill.
Cantor Fitzgerald recently signed a lease on new office space on 57th Street in Manhattan, filling 80,000 square feet on five floors. Kohart's parents took a month-long trip to Florida this spring to decompress. His father has dramatically decreased the amount of time he spends at his downtown office, choosing instead to work more frequently from his home office. Family members have been tested for DNA so that recovery workers can attempt to match unidentified remains with Ryan's genetic characteristics. But even as they hope for a match in order to provide some closure, his father said that they have another image in mind, one that recalls that perfect day last summer on the island of Capri.
"The wind was blowing out toward the Atlantic that day," said Geoffrey Kohart, Sr. "With all the heat that was in that building, we have this image of Ryan and all the people he worked with just blowing out into the ocean."
Melissa White remembers September 11: "I work downtown at an investment bank and I was a stone's throw away from the towers. I was probably about 100 feet away. If you weren't there, it's hard to relive it for you. The media makes it seem gentle...You relive it every single day. It's a personal hell every day that I wake up and it's that much harder."
Kohart and White were to be married on September 7, 2002.
2013 update: The Ryan Kohart Memorial Scholarship Fund was eventually funded to over $155,000. A men's lacrosse player is selected as the recipient each year; this year, it's Ryan Kilpatrick, a junior from West Chester, Pa.
The principal of Rams Club's scholarships stays intact and the interest is used to pay for the cost of educating the student-athlete. As such, contributions to the fund are still being accepted in an effort to grow the principal to $400,000. If you would like to contribute to the scholarship, make your check payable to The Educational Foundation and mail to PO Box 2446, Chapel Hill 27515 with a notation for the Ryan Kohart Memorial Scholarship Fund, or contact Sue Walsh about stock gifts.