Students pay tribute to KATZ Academy cofounder

At a memorial service at the KATZ Academy Charter School in Camden for cofounder Marcella Dalsey, her children, Gracie and Bobby (front) and Chelsea and Johnny, engage in a group hug. Dalsey - recalled Saturday as "a force of nature" - died May 31 in the plane crash that also killed Inquirer co-owner Lewis Katz.
At a memorial service at the KATZ Academy Charter School in Camden for cofounder Marcella Dalsey, her children, Gracie and Bobby (front) and Chelsea and Johnny, engage in a group hug. Dalsey - recalled Saturday as "a force of nature" - died May 31 in the plane crash that also killed Inquirer co-owner Lewis Katz. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 09, 2014

Marcella Dalsey would have loved the scene and the sounds: a line of KATZ Academy students in crisp white shirts and bright blue vests raising their sweet, high voices enthusiastically.

"Her name is Miss Marcy! Our school is her claim to fame!" they sang, a tribute to a founder and the president of the Camden charter school's board of trustees.

Dalsey and six others, including philanthropist and Inquirer co-owner Lewis Katz, died May 31 when Katz's private jet crashed while trying to take off from an airport outside Boston.

The vivacious, determined Dalsey was memorialized Saturday in the gym of the KATZ Academy's Parkside campus, which Dalsey's partner, Joe Salema, called "the house that Lewis and Marcy built."

A crowd of hundreds spilled into the bleachers, gathering to weep and mourn, and - befitting a service for Dalsey - laugh.

Dalsey, 59, was tiny, barely 5 feet tall, with a mane of curly blond hair and a way of drawing people to her.

"Marcy was a force of nature," said Joseph Conway, head of Camden's Charter School Network. "She was a powerhouse. She could power all of Camden city with her energy."

The Rev. Michael Doyle, pastor of Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in South Camden, called her "a smile on the face of the Earth."

She was, as her daughter Chelsea Dalsey noted, "a friendly face, but a fierce businesswoman," a former Eagles cheerleader who went on to raise a family, open a Haddonfield ice cream shop, and work in marketing for Interstate Outdoor Advertising and as executive director of the Drew A. Katz Foundation.

When Lewis Katz decided to open a charter school to lift up the children of Camden, it was Dalsey he turned to for help. She traveled to Las Vegas to meet with Andre Agassi, whose charter school helped inspire Katz's plan.

In 2011, the New Jersey Department of Education awarded Katz and Dalsey a charter, and KATZ Academy opened in 2012.

"She always told me that together, we would change the lives of thousands of children in Camden," said Zulma Lombardo, vice president of the KATZ Academy board of trustees.

Drew Katz vowed the school would now be known as the Katz-Dalsey Academy on behalf of his father and his friend, two forces for good.

"Marcy Dalsey, I love you," Drew Katz said. "Marcy Dalsey, I miss you. Marcy Dalsey, stop telling God what to do."

For all her civic and educational endeavors, her heart was her four children, all of whom spoke at the service, standing in a tight row together at the lectern.

Johnny, her youngest, wore a plaid bow tie, light jacket, and tomato-red pants - a nod to his mother, who "always encouraged me to do as I felt, and be confident," he said.

She was the kind of parent who took her children to museums and parks, who read them 15 books and sang them 15 songs every night. When Johnny told his mother his ambition in life was to be a caterpillar, she made him a caterpillar costume.

The man who drove Dalsey to the airport on the day she died knew every fact about her children's lives because she talked nonstop about them on the car ride.

Dalsey, who grew up in Pennsauken and lost her father at a young age, always kept active. Several years ago, she persuaded Salema to go in-line skating with her.

Salema fell and broke his elbow, but he had fun.

"Marcy," he said, "made it clear to me that living a life of passion was an absolute must."

On the day of the crash, Lewis Katz took a group of friends to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's home for an education-related fund-raiser. They all had dinner together, then stopped at Authors' Ridge, the spot where Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott are buried.

As the plane prepared for takeoff, Dalsey sent Salema a text message: "So much fun. On the plane headed home. xo."

As the mourners filed out, some paused to read messages the kindergartners wrote to Miss Marcy, a nice lady they loved.

"Thanks," a little girl named Mekena wrote, "for having a great heart."


kgraham@phillynews.com215-854-5146 @newskag www.inquirer.com/schoolfiles

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