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After daughter’s death, Fredericksburg preschool teacher accepts two diplomas

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Hours before her graduation, Jennifer Goonan was nowhere to be found. Earlier that spring day, she and her mother, Maureen, had readied for the ceremony by getting pedicures followed by lunch. Festive graduation decorations filled Maureen’s home and an ice cream cake sat in the freezer. “She was so, so happy,” said Maureen.


At 3:30 in the afternoon, Maureen bolted up from a nap and went to wash her car, which she would use to drive her daughter to the Germanna Community College’s graduation that evening. But Jennifer never came home.


“No one could find her,” said Maureen. “Someone told me there was an accident, but it was just a truck. Finally, someone said it was a gray car and I knew. I knew then it had to be her.”


As Jennifer made a left turn at a blinking yellow traffic light, her car was hit with the full force of a lumber truck. Both vehicles skidded into the median. Witnesses pulled over to help, including a medical student from Germanna who held Jennifer’s hand as she died. “She felt her pulse for just a second and told (Jennifer) she wasn’t alone,” said Maureen.  




Maureen’s perception of children quickly changed after giving birth to twin sons Jeff and John. “I really didn’t like kids,” she said. “It was a St. Paul kind of thing where God knocked me off my horse. (The boys) were just the love of my life. I would say I can’t imagine anything better than being a mom to these babies.” A few years later, Maureen and her husband, Frank, welcomed baby Jennifer.


After five years of long commutes, Maureen quit her job at the Red Cross to spend more time with her children. “I had three small children and I never saw them,” said Maureen. “Jennifer was so excited when I said I wasn’t going to work anymore.”


Soon Maureen began volunteering at St. Patrick School in Fredericksburg, and after a few months, she was offered a job as kindergarten aide. Since 2000, she’s worked happily as a preschool teacher, though now it’s part time.


Jeff, John and Jennifer all graduated from the school where their mother taught. After graduating high school, Jennifer took classes at Germanna while working in restaurants, said Maureen. Jennifer’s real love was animals. The “goofy, happy” 24-year-old brunette had two dogs of her own and was set to start work at an animal clinic two weeks after graduation.




When people heard what happened, the Goonans received an “unbelievable” outpouring of support, said Maureen. “A friend started a gofundme (page). People here were coming in to school and just dropping money off,” she said. “(The day after the accident, the school) had Mass and a rosary for her, and they don’t usually have Mass on Wednesdays. All the kids gave me spiritual bouquets made with silk flowers and little cards of prayers that they would say for her.” Family members, friends and mountains of casseroles filled the Goonan’s home. “I just sat on our sofas for days with people coming all the time. (Friends) wouldn’t let me out of their sight,” she said.


At the rosary wake, people were lined up out the door, said Maureen. Six priests presided at the funeral Mass at St. Patrick the next day. Jennifer’s face was injured in the crash, so at the last minute the family decided to close the casket. But beneath the lid, Jennifer was dressed in a bright red cap and gown. “I wanted to show everybody because she worked so hard,” said Maureen.




Six months later, it was Maureen wearing a cap and gown, walking across the stage at Germanna to accept her degree in early childhood education, and to receive her daughter’s diploma. Wiping tears from her eyes, she gave advice to the new graduates. “Be kind to one another.”


During the ceremony, the school announced the first recipient of the Jennifer Goonan Memorial Scholarship Fund, which will go each year to a student working in the food service industry. The webpage for the scholarship shows a picture of Jennifer smiling and looking skyward.


“Jennifer’s career goal was to care for animals as a veterinarian. But she loved helping people, too,” the site reads. “And that always shined through, whether she was making others laugh in a communications class at Germanna or waiting tables to pay tuition. She brought such joy to those jobs.”




Maureen likes to keep reminders of her daughter close. A framed photo of Jennifer smiling sits on the windowsill in the preschool classroom. Maureen wears a ring she gave her daughter for graduation. “She got to wear it for two days,” she said.


She rereads notes that Jennifer used to leave her. As a reminder to others, a white sign near the crash site reads, “Drive carefully, in memory of Jennifer Goonan.”


Grieving has been difficult for the family, but they know the truck driver who hit Jennifer’s car also is suffering greatly from guilt. Maureen hopes to meet him when he feels ready, she said. But for now, a mutual friend let the man know they empathize with his pain.


“This is what (my friend) wrote me,” Maureen said, looking at her phone. “I saw the truck driver today. He is so very upset still he can hardly talk. I hugged him very tight and told him it was from you. I assured him all that you are wonderful people, and just as you all are going on with your life, that you all want him to as well. ”


In the midst of everything, the school has been a great blessing, said Maureen. “Oh my gosh, it’s helped (being) with the little kids. The innocence and the love that they give back is just priceless. The joy they come to school with every day,” she said. Both the hugs of small children and the understanding of the fellow teachers and 20 years’ worth of preschool parents made a difference. “I don’t know what happened here when the whole school found out, but I just think it was wonderful — the sadness and the pouring of love that came out.”


Find out more


To donate to the Jennifer Goonan Memorial Scholarship Fund, call 540/423-9060 or go to germanna.edu/educational-foundation/jennifer-goonan-scholarship.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019