Friends, neighbors mourn three killed in plane crash

Teacher Michael Clegg hands snacks to Jashir Williams-Boyd (left), and Zoe Holman at KATZ Academy Charter School in Camden. Marcella Dalsey, who died in Saturday's plane crash, was president and a cofounder of the school with Lewis Katz.
Teacher Michael Clegg hands snacks to Jashir Williams-Boyd (left), and Zoe Holman at KATZ Academy Charter School in Camden. Marcella Dalsey, who died in Saturday's plane crash, was president and a cofounder of the school with Lewis Katz. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 04, 2014

Their host, Lewis Katz, was dozing as the plane prepared for take-off from Atlantic City shortly before 3 p.m. Saturday.

Marcella Dalsey and Susan Asbell knew exactly where they were headed, but not Anne Leeds, who had received an invitation from Katz on Longport's 36th Avenue beach just hours before.

"I'm on his plane!!" Leeds texted to her husband, Longport Commissioner Jim Leeds. "They know where we are headed, but want me to be surprised."

Of course they did, Leeds' daughter, Patellen Corr, said Monday, because her mother was a known voracious reader. Katz must surely have delighted in the surprise of a visit to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

And thrilled Leeds was. "I'm at a famous author's house in Massachusetts," she texted to her husband. "Incredible. Her son is starting a new idea regarding education. The house was done by this old house!"

"OMG" her husband texted back at 9:36 p.m., when all her texts appeared at once.

Until then, for the three women invited on the Boston jaunt, it was yet another Lewis Katz adventure in a long line of gracious invitations that could range from a shout to join him at Steve & Cookie's in Margate to Saturday's ill-fated trip to Goodwin's elegantly renovated home a plane ride away.

Four minutes later, the plane was in flames, engulfing three community-minded people who went along for the ride: Leeds, 74, a mother and grandmother devoted to her church, a petite woman who had a greeting for everyone passing by on their way to the beach; Asbell, a Camden native devoted to her synagogue, who engineered massive Thanksgivings for the children of the Boys and Girls Club of Camden County and their families; and Dalsey, a former Eagles cheerleader whose barely 5-foot frame was no match for the force she mustered as she grew into a civic and educational leader.

It was a plane filled with caring and selfless people who only meant well, following in the path of Katz, both literally and in their shared missions.

Education shepherd

Marcella "Marcy" Dalsey represented something different to the different people who knew her.

She was an ambitious Eagles cheerleader, one-time Haddonfield ice cream shop owner, mother on the run - and, more recently, an education shepherd.

On Sunday, Denise Didinger Bock just wanted to talk to her longtime friend about the fatal jet crash and offer support.

"There was no answer. I kept trying," she said. Bock soon learned her friend had been aboard. "There was nothing I could do," said Bock, whose friendship with Dalsey began on Eagles sidelines.

At 59, Dalsey had become executive director of the Drew A. Katz Foundation and president of the KATZ Academy Charter School in Camden, which she co-founded in 2012 with Katz. On Monday, students buzzed about the campus as Dalsey was recalled as a hands-on leader who would run to a store if the tape supply depleted.

"Even though she was the tiniest person in the room, she was your guardian," said principal Tishara Landi, 41.

"She had such a big spirit," said Janet Laboy, 47, of Cramer Hill, embracing son Wilmiguel Velez, a fourth grader. "We cried."

Before she was Miss Marcy, Dalsey had made a name for herself in Haddonfield. She raised four children, Chelsea, Bobby, Grace, and John, and was active with Haddonfield Plays and Players. (In 1998, she played Aunt Em in The Wizard of Oz.) For costumes, she would go to a consignment shop on Ellis Street, recalled the now-closed shop's owner, Grace Parsons, 74.

Parsons' grandchildren played with a friend in the late afternoon inside Gracie's Ice Cream Parlor, which Dalsey opened in 1995 and named after her youngest daughter.

"A lot of people still relate this place to her," said Nancy Maniscalco, the shop's current owner. "It was her baby."

Dalsey graduated from Pennsauken High School and for a time studied nursing.

In 1980, Dalsey and Bock met as they spent a summer trying out for the Eagles cheer squad, then the Liberty Belles. Bock remembers the exhilaration when the two learned they had made the cut.

"We were the rookies together," Bock recalled.

The duo's first season, the squad traveled to New Orleans and the two roomed together for Super Bowl XV against the Oakland Raiders, in 1981.

In 2009, a reunion for cheer alumni rekindled Dalsey's relationship with former teammate Debbie Brady, wife of U.S. Rep. Bob Brady. Brady said she was not surprised about Dalsey's evolution into education: "She was the first one to volunteer to attend charity events."

Mary Jo Gallagher recalled her friend collecting coats every winter for children in Camden. "She was not somebody to sit back and not do something," Gallagher said.

Dalsey had recently become passionate about increasing awareness of homeless veterans in Camden's Tent City.

In 2010, while she worked in marketing for Katz's Interstate Outdoor Advertising, Dalsey helped erect a billboard on Route 130 in Pennsauken deploring conditions in the encampment. The board asked for pledges to the Volunteers of America's Home for the Brave in Camden, a transitional housing facility.

"It was very organic," said Melissa Helmbrecht, executive director of the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem Counties. The two worked on similar initiatives.

"She would have an experience, see something, have an idea - and just go with it," Helmbrecht said.

'Larger than life"

To her friends, Susan Asbell was a dynamo, role model, and a "larger than life" figure known for infectious energy and leadership.

"If she took on a cause, that cause was lucky because she was absolutely passionate," said a longtime friend, Phyllis Pearl, superintendent of elections for Camden County. "She gave 150 percent and made sure you gave 150 percent."

Asbell, 68, a Camden native, was vice president and president-elect of the board of trustees of the Boys and Girls Club of Camden County. A resident of Cherry Hill and Margate, she led efforts to hold the club's annual Thanksgiving dinner. "Susan would beg, borrow, and steal from anyone she could," Pearl said. "Some things, we cooked, and some, we re-heated. She truly made it an experience."

Executive director Bernadette Shanahan said: "She was a powerful force - and she changed lives."

Part of what drove Asbell was a spiritual side that grew as a member of Congregation Beth El, said Senior Rabbi Aaron Krupnick. "She was a very religious person," Krupnick said, "a presence."

She was a member of the ritual committee and headed a committee that comforted and prepared meals for mourners. As a member of Beth El's sacred (burial) society - she and others washed and prepared the bodies of female members of the congregation the night before burial, a practice thousands of years old.

Beth El member Karin Elkis, said Asbell exemplified the biblical "Woman of Valor" or Eshet Chayil in Hebrew. "Her value is beyond pearls," the verses say. "She extends her hands to the poor, and reaches out her hand to the needy."

The poem "is old, but in Susan's case, it translates to today," said Elkis, chief of staff for the senate majority office in Trenton.

Asbell is survived by her husband, former Camden County Prosecutor Samuel Asbell; a son, Steven; a daughter, Stacy; a brother, Andrew Kushner; and three grandchildren.

'Couldn't meet finer people'

"You couldn't meet finer people than Lewis Katz and Anne Leeds," said Scott Stetzer, of Longport, who, like many, saw Katz around Longport on Saturday. Ever since, the tiny borough has been hushed in mourning.

Leeds grew up on Mohican Street in West Oak Lane, one of seven born into "the raucous family" of Kate and John Brennan, including identical twin Eileen. She attended St. Athanasius, Little Flower, and Cardinal Dougherty High Schools.

She met her husband of 52 years during a summer as a mother's helper in Margate, where he was a lifeguard. The family lived in Wayne until retiring to the 36th Avenue beach block, across the street from Katz's house. "She was always out on her porch," said neighbor Tricia Rafter. "She always had a welcoming smile. They really enjoyed that house."

Father Joe Ferrara of Holy Trinity Parish said Leeds was a church trustee, weekly collections counter, and the driving force behind reviving Longport's Blessing of the Sea, dropped during parish upheaval. She rarely missed 5 p.m. Saturday Mass.

"She had a solid, good faith," he said. "She wanted to work for the church and help people. And she was good at it. There wasn't any negativity about her."

She taught at St. David's Nursery School in Wayne for 26 years. In Longport, she walked collecting shells and sea glass on the beach, and kept a little table and chairs set up for her grandchildren.

"If you didn't see her for a long time, she'd pick right back up, and it was all about the kids," said Bernadette Miller, a friend. "She just brought a smile to your face."

In addition to her husband and daughter, Leeds is survived by sons Ted and Ryan; sisters Eileen Reddington and Kass McManus; a brother, Ed Brennan; and nine grandchildren, who, the family's obituary said, "will miss her vegetables."


arosenberg@phillynews.com

609-823-0453

@amysrosenberg

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