Mari-Rae Sopper

AGE: 35
BIRTHDAY: June 19, 1966


Women's Gymnastics Coach
University of California, Santa Barbara

(Ms. Sopper was also an attorney.)




(From her mother, Marion)

On September 11, 2001, the world as we knew it changed forever. For us, personally, our daughter, Mari-Rae Sopper, had her life cut short at the age of 35. Her dream was to be a collegiate women's gymnastics coach. After practicing law in the Navy JAG Corps and in a corporate law firm in Washington D.C, she accepted an offer for a 70% paycut to become the head women's gymnastics coach at UCSB. Her condo was for sale; the movers had picked up her furniture; her car had been shipped to California.; she had attended a wedding of a good friend, and then several goodbye dinners with other friends and her sister; and then she boarded American Airlines Flight 77 on 9-11-01 to begin her new life. She was ecstatic!!

What actually happened on that plane will forever haunt us. Did she know that the plane was being hijacked? Or was she asleep (she had not slept the night before because she was so excited.) She was supposedly in Row 20 but probably moved to another seat in another row where no one was sitting. Her cat, Sammy, was with her and they needed more room. We know she was wearing earphones (she always did) and listening to her favorite Country and Western music (The CDs were missing from her collection.)

When everyone was moved to the back of the plane, she may have begun to take notice -- if she was awake.

What did she say to the hijackers? She would have tried to calm them down and talk them out of what they were doing. After all, she was to start work at her dream job on Wednesday, and knowing her, she would have been focused on getting to Santa Barbara and would let nothing get in her way!!

Mari-Rae was filled with joy that day. While in high school (William Fremd in Palatine,) she had wanted her gymnastics team to become a state contender and they did; she had wanted to compete at the college level and she did - at Iowa State University she was named MVP after starting as a walk-on; she wanted to coach gymnastics and she did that in Dallas, Denver and the Naval Academy in Annapolis; she wanted to become an attorney and she did that by graduating from Denver University Law School, passing the Colorado Bar and then becoming a Navy JAG and later a corporate attorney; she had wanted to become a collegiate gymnastics coach ---- and she did!

Mari-Rae held passionate and dedicated beliefs. The following is a quote from a fellow attorney: " I was 'mentoring' and assisting her on the case that she had pending in the U.S. Supreme Court. I can say this after 26 years of practicing law. Many lesser attorneys would have sought the "fame" of arguing a case in the US Supreme Court, regardless of the negative effects such was likely to have both on the specific client and other's accused (rightly or wrongly) of crimes. Mari-Rae instantly saw the "big picture" and knew what the right thing to do was, and so took a position that was honorable to the profession of law, but most certainly deprived her of an opportunity to appear before the Supreme Court. That case has had an impact on every death penalty case in the United States, and also every military court-martial thereafter. Few knew of Mari-Rae's selfless contribution to that, but those of us who did, saluted her then and continue to honor her tenacity and integrity as an attorney."

The following is a quote from a fellow JAG Officer: "Where do you begin when you describe Mari-Rae? I have never been able to think of her without laughing to myself about something crazy she said or did. Mari-Rae was unique, and beautiful and talented. She had a rare way of looking at the world - she was trusting, non-judgmental and full of ideas. But for all of the talent and skill she possessed - and for all of the unbelievable achievements she had - it is the moments when she was just being "Mari-Rae" that I remember the best.

For all of you who have heard about her quest to have the Navy "hem" raised a little bit to better flatter her calves - I remember her coming to me in her first week at Officer Indoctrination School ('knife and fork' school for lawyers) when she swore she couldn't wear "that hem" and figured that if she just explained it to her commanding officer - who would be a reasonable person - she could get it shortened a bit. Although she was overt in her approach to "Operation Raise Hem" - she was convinced that no one ever noticed her 6-inch long, 2-inch wide, bigger than Mari-Rae, hair clip, while the rest of us suffered through with the Navy-approved Goody barrette and bobby pin ensemble. Mar-Rae may be the only female officer in history to actually determine her own uniform. For those of you who asked the question, "is the Navy ready for Mari-Rae?", I can answer. The Navy probably never had a more dedicated, passionate, intelligent, lawyer. Mari-Rae made the Navy a better place. She brought honor, integrity and courage to every case she ever had, and she fought hard for every client she represented."

Quote from another Navy friend: "Some people thought Mari Rae just wasn't cut out for the military because truth be told, she really wasn't very good at being a follower, although she really did try. Many more people thought Mari Rae was exactly the kind of officer the military needs. Either way, to be certain, she was one of the most irrepressibly independent thinkers many of us who worked with her at Appellate Defense had ever encountered. Not surprisingly, she quickly became an exceptional appellate lawyer. She fought for justice for each and every service member she represented and always gave her clients the benefit of the doubt. She was as smart and tenacious an advocate as any lawyer could hope to be --and better still, a loyal and dedicated friend too. She was all team spirit and wished only the best for her colleagues.

One of the most beautiful things about Mari Rae is that she did more than just think well, and get upset when she saw injustice -- she acted on so many of her convictions. A staunch advocate for women and children's rights, while at Appellate Defense she was a dedicated mentor to a child at risk from a very poor middle school district in Alexandria, Virginia. We had an incredibly large caseload there, and there was no "free" time to spare--but Mari Rae took a couple hours a week anyway to go see this kid, even though it meant working later or over the weekend. Just last fall, as those of us on her e-mail mailing list know, Mari Rae rallied as many people as she could to go with her to campaign in the "swing state" of Pennsylvania, and the very close presidential race there was won by the Democratic Party which she so strongly supported. It would be hard to find anyone more deeply patriotic than Mari Rae. The strength of her conviction that the individual could make a difference in our democratic government made me feel more optimistic about our government too. The strength of her conviction made me believe that activism and ideals really were not just meant to be the stuff of youth."

Mari-Rae had a premonition about odd numbers. She would never do 19 sit-ups but only 18. She even counted the strokes brushing her hair and made sure she ended on an even number. Mari-Rae died on 9-11-01. She was on Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon at 9:39 a.m. She is interned at Arlington Cemetery Section M (which is the 13th letter of the alphabet) 3 Row 11 Site 1.

Mari-Rae originally planned to drive to Santa Barbara but we told her "it was too dangerous!!" When she had originally asked my opinion about taking the job at a 70% paycut with only a one-year job guarantee, my reply was "Take it. Life is too short!" Little did I know.

And now after almost one year has passed, our memories sustain us and bring some comfort. Mari-Rae, we are so very proud of you and we still miss you terribly.


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