She doesn’t have to look at the text. She has memorized it and so many details of his life.
“He was 5 feet 11 inches tall and he was very physically fit. He was very handsome and always meticulous in his dress,” she said.
He was her only child and to this day, he is the reason why she does everything she does.
He’s how she survived breast cancer in 2011 and her desire to honor his memory is what gets her up in the morning and propels her to her job at Panera Bread and second job as a church parish secretary.
“Any strength I have I get from my son,” she said, deflecting complements about her own character.
She said Ryan loved the military and believed in the men that were part of his unit. In fact, he was offered a promotion to staff sergeant soon before being deployed for Afghanastan but he declined the post because it would mean that he would not go to Afghanastan with the men whom he had trained.
Kathy has the same kind of loyalty.
When the 28-member unit came back from the tour of duty that had killed Ryan, Kathy went down to North Carolina to meet them and welcome them back and to tell them that she didn’t blame them for his death.
“It was hard,” she said. “I knew that Ryan would want me to let those guys know that it’s not their fault.”
“I am so glad I did it. There were a lot of tears and a lot of hugs. I formed relationships that will last a lifetime,” she said, explaining that she stays in really close touch with seven of the men from the unit.
In April, Duquesne University will hold the Sixth Annual Run for Ryan to raise money for a military scholarship to attend the school. The run is how Kathy first became familiar with Panera Bread because it provides food for the event.
She said several of the men from Ryan’s unit will come to participate in the run and some will stay with her and some will stay with his widow, Valerie, who also works at Panera Bread.
She said maintaining the relationships with the men from Ryan’s unit is something that she knows her son would want her to do.
Kathy said she and Ryan’s widow, Valerie, seize any opportunity to honor Ryan’s memory.
She said many soldiers experience survivors’ guilt.
“The best way to honor the people who died while serving is to live your life well,” she said. “I believe that is what Ryan would want.”
That’s where Panera Bread enters for Kathy.
She began working at Panera in March 2014 because her other job as a secretary for a church parish kept her too isolated from people and human engagement.
“The No. 1 reason why I love working at Panera Bread is that I learn something every day – whether it be about people or the business of Panera – Always something that I want to learn,” she said.