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Kind Faces, Big Hearts : Violence: Shannon Lowney and Leeann Nichols, receptionists at clinics where abortions are provided, believed in a woman’s right to choose. And they died for it.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They answered the phones, keeping their voices even, but cheerful. They greeted clients who were often nervous and confused. They fended off protesters as they arrived for work each morning, and for this they earned salaries that made waiting tables at the local pizzeria look lucrative.

Receptionists at a pair of women’s health clinics a mile and a half apart, 25-year-old Shannon Lowney and Leeann Nichols, 38, died within minutes of each other Friday when both were gunned down at their desks. Five others were wounded in near-identical attacks that police say were committed by one person. John Salvi III, a 22-year-old apprentice hairdresser, is in custody in Virginia, where he was apprehended following a massive manhunt, and is expected to be charged in the shootings.

Here on Beacon Street, meanwhile, the mood is sober. The steps of the clinic of Planned Parenthood of Greater Boston, where Lowney worked on and off since she graduated from Boston College three years ago, are lined with flowers. Candles flicker in her memory. A steady stream of mourners--men and women; old, young and in-between--pauses to leave bouquets, to read the poems and to shudder at the drops of blood staining the steps.

Outside the Preterm Women’s Health Clinic, the display is no different. Among the most poignant of the tributes left in Nichols’ honor is a white wooden cross. Its horizontal bar reads “I love you, Mommyscotch. Always, Butterscotch.” The vertical bar carries this message: “Leeann, I died along with you. Can’t wait to be with you again. Love, Ed.” Butterscotch was the couple’s tabby cat; Ed McDonough was Nichols’ fiance.

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Identical cards left at both ad hoc shrines depict the animal gang from “Winnie the Pooh.” “A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference,” it reads. No one leaves either site dry-eyed.

Shannon Elizabeth Lowney

For most college freshman, the first days in the dorm are terrifying. All those new faces. All those rules. What if people don’t like you? But at Boston College, one 18-year-old from the class of 1991 had it all scoped out. Shannon Lowney, of Fairfield, Conn., skipped down the hall with a bag of red licorice sticks. In no time, she was everybody’s best friend.

Her sunny optimism was no act, friends say. Rather, her smile was a key part of her personality.

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Every morning, said her fiance, David Keene, “she was determined to show a smile to every person.” In her work at Planned Parenthood, this quality served her well. “She was the kind face and the heart of the clinic,” said clinic director Alice Verhoeven.

Lowney came by her work, a financial step down from her college job waiting tables at Uno’s, from a powerful commitment to women’s health issues. “She believed in and was focused on ensuring safe and accessible health care for any woman who needed it,” Keene told a crowd of more than 1,000 mourners at a memorial service Tuesday night.

With that central belief, along with her deep sense of feminism, it would hardly seem contradictory that a graduate of a Jesuit institution--a young woman raised in a Roman Catholic family--would go to work in a facility where abortions were among the services offered, a Boston College theology professor explained.

“Just to say that they were from a strong Irish Catholic background, that doesn’t necessarily predetermine any views that they might have about abortion,” Lisa Sowle Cahill said.

“Increasingly--in the Catholic Church in general and especially in Catholic universities--the issue of feminism and women’s rights and women’s voice in the Church” is crucial, Cahill said. For some young women with such feelings, she added, “abortion rights mean women’s rights.”

Lowney graduated magna cum laude with a degree in history. She studied Spanish specifically so she could assist non-English-speaking women in search of health care, Verhoeven said. “I’m not even sure some of the Spanish-speaking clients knew they were calling Planned Parenthood,” Verhoeven said. “But they knew to ask for Shannon.”

After working at Planned Parenthood for a year, she and Keene moved to Maine, where Lowney took a counseling job in a program for abused children. Returning to the Boston area, where she had recently completed an application for a graduate program in social work, Lowney went right back to work at Planned Parenthood.

Liam Lowney, her 22-year-old brother, said her decision to work in women’s health was a reflection of the social conscience and the independent thinking their parents--both teachers--instilled in their three children. The family expressed no interest in revenge. Instead, Meghan Lowney called her younger sister’s death “a message for all of us about the violence and the path of our world today.”

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The family missed Tuesday’s memorial for Lowney at the Arlington Street Church here because they were preparing to bury her 88-year-old grandfather, who died hours after hearing of his granddaughter’s death.

And so it fell to Keene, 27, to eulogize the woman he intended to marry. He praised her less for dying as a hero than for living as one. And he recalled the confusion expressed by his 5-year-old nephew when he and Lowney prepared to move away.

“What will I do without Shannon?” the child wondered. “She helps me when things are hard.”

Well, Keene said, “life has suddenly gotten very hard. But Shannon is helping us all.”

Leeann Nichols

On summer evenings, Leeann Nichols and her fiance, Ed McDonough, had a special ritual to help them unwind. They would grab their cat, Butterscotch, and head for the lake near their home outside Salem, N.H. Then all three would jump in their dinghy and go for a row while the light was low.

Friends said Nichols chose to live in this semi-rural area north of Boston in large part because she loved nature so much. She adored cats and dogs, and she welcomed the arrival of spring each year because it meant the return of forsythia.

She and McDonough had recently remodeled the house they moved into two years ago. They planned to be married soon.

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They were inseparable, friends said. They commuted together, and every day, McDonough dropped her off at work with a big kiss. At the end of the day, the greeting was just as warm.

Nichols joined the staff at Preterm Women’s Health Clinic in the fall. The position as receptionist seemed less stressful than her previous job as a telephone counselor at Repro Associates, another Brookline clinic where abortions are performed.

“There’s a high burnout rate in these jobs,” a former co-worker at Repro said, asking that her name not be used because “we’re all so scared here now.” Telephone counselors hear endless tales of woe, Nichols’ former colleague said. But throughout her three years on the job, “Leeann stayed calm and cheerful. She was a dedicated, caring person who was just fabulous with patients.”

From Nichols’ hometown of North Olmsted, Ohio, where the family still lives, Mark Nichols said his sister took the job less out of a sense of activism than because it was a place to work.

“She was simply someone with a job as a receptionist, like any other place,” he said.

Still, he said, the Nichols family expressed reservations when Leeann went to work in a facility where abortions were performed. They had, he said, “read about the nuts running around abortion clinics in the country.”

But McDonough maintained that his fiancee “believed in her work.” In a statement delivered at Tuesday’s memorial service, he added, “I don’t think she would want you to give up because of what has happened. Because, in her own quiet way, she was very determined.”

With the arrest of Salvi, Ruth Nichols seeks retribution. Of her daughter’s alleged murderer, she told an Ohio television station: “If they would put him before me, I would shoot him myself.”

But that gesture would seem out of character for Leeann Nichols, her onetime co-worker from Repro Associates said.

“She wouldn’t hurt a flea,” Nichols’ former colleague said.

With the steps of the Preterm clinic awash in flowers in her memory, Nichols seemed likely to be remembered for her gentle openness.

Alongside a vase of yellow roses, a letter from friends at Preterm read: “We miss your laugh, your kindness. Leeann, you will not be forgotten.”


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