Memory of 9/11 widow, UR field hockey star, lives on

By Jim Mandelaro Democrat & Chronicle

Nancy Melvin Taylor, right, graduated as the leading scorer in University of Rochester field hockey history. Her record stood for 28 years before being broken this fall. (Photo: Photo provided by University of Rochester Athletic Communications

Nancy Melvin Taylor, L, graduated as the leading scorer in UR field hockey history. Her record stood for 28 years before being broken this fall. Photo – University of Rochester Athletic Communications

After being diagnosed with terminal breast cancer in 2002, Nancy Melvin-Taylor compiled a “to-do” list:

  • Potty train her son, Dean.
  • See her infant son walk and talk.
  • Get her will in order.
  • And return to the University of Rochester, the place of so much glory, for her induction into the Athletic Hall of Fame.

“It wasn’t easy for her,” says her former coach, Jane Possee. “She wasn’t well enough to come in 2002 (when she was first selected), but she came back the next year. She made it.”

Weeks later, she was gone, a 9/11 widow leaving behind two young sons and a story so tragic it resonates more than a decade later. On Saturday, 12 of her teammates will return to UR for homecoming on Meliora Weekend. They will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the field hockey team’s first state and ECAC championships — a team powered by Melvin-Taylor.

And they will celebrate having known Nancy.

“Nancy was a phenomenal athlete,” says former teammate Christine Mitchell, her close friend since middle school. “But you’d never know it to be around her. She was just this happy-go-lucky person.”

Possee recruited her along with two teammates from Syracuse’s Fayetteville-Manlius High — Mitchell (the former Chris Joor) and Dorie Gostin Massie.

But make no mistake.

“Nancy was the star,” Possee says. “She was the best offensive player I’d ever seen.”

The Syracuse native was UR’s field hockey All-American and graduated in 1986 as the program’s record-holder for game-winning goals in one season (7) and career (19), career goals (50) and career points (114). The four-year starting forward was named to three all-state Division III teams and helped UR repeat as state champs in 1985.

Not bad for someone who didn’t play the game seriously until high school.

“I credit her mom with that,” says Nancy’s dad, Merle, now 86. “When Nancy was in high school, everyone was playing soccer. Ann thought field hockey would be good for Nancy. And she excelled.”

She was a star in the classroom, too. She graduated from UR with high honors with a bachelor’s degree in nursing and went on to earn an MBA from Syracuse University.

Life in D.C.

Melvin-Taylor met her husband, Kip Taylor, when she was working in medical marketing research in Washington, D.C. They married in 1996, and two years later Kip — the son of a career Army officer — began working at the Pentagon as an executive officer in the Army’s Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel.

The two struggled to conceive but finally welcomed their first child, Dean, on Dec. 28, 1999, through in vitro fertilization. Two years later, Nancy became pregnant again via IVF. It was, the Taylors said, a miracle.

They lived in McLean, Va., and loved grilling on their deck and working in their yard. The 6-foot-5 Kip enjoyed running, and playing basketball and golf. He said he dreamed of one day coaching his son’s Little League team or attending dance recitals.

Their second child was due in October 2001, and Kip had another reason to be excited: That November, he would be promoted from major to lieutenant colonel. He had asked the Army to delay the promotion so that his family, who would be in town to see the baby, could be there. It was a big deal.

The Taylors were on top of the world, but that world was about to be turned upside down. At 8:26 a.m. on September 11, 2001, Kip e-mailed friends from his office in the Pentagon and poignantly discussed how his life had changed since becoming a dad.

“After kids, there are days that just get going when you say, ‘Hi honey, I’m home,'” he wrote. “My conclusion is that what we do until that moment pales in comparison to what we do after that point in the day.”

Seventy-four minutes later, the 38-year-old Taylor was killed when American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon during the terrorist attacks on America. His office took a direct hit. Also killed was Kip’s boss, Lt. Gen. Timothy Maude, with whom Kip was meeting.

Maude was the highest-ranking U.S. military officer killed in the September 11 attacks and the most senior U.S. officer killed by hostile action since Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner in 1945.

“We knew early on that Kip was missing,” says Mitchell, a marketing consultant in Boston at the time. “But Nancy thought he might be in a hospital. So many people had been severely injured and hospitalized. But someone from the military came to her house two days later and said he had been in a meeting with Kip just before the plane hit. He said there was no way Kip could have survived based on where he was.”

Nancy scheduled a memorial service for her husband at Arlington National Cemetery, less than two weeks before her due date. The Army posthumously promoted Kip to lieutenant colonel.

“For a long time, she didn’t accept that he was gone,” Mitchell says. “They didn’t find his body until two days before the service. And that service was something. The place was packed to the gills with all sorts of military personnel, and you could see the Pentagon from the (burial) site. It was still charred.”

Nancy recounted her feelings in an interview with after the memorial service.

“We were very happy, about as happy as we had ever been in our married life,” she said. “I guess it’s better to be taken when you’re happy than when you’re not. But it doesn’t make it any easier.”

On Oct. 25, 2001, Nancy gave birth to another son, Luke.

“The babies are a great source of comfort,” she said afterward. “I can’t imagine if I had gone through the IVF two times and it had not been successful, and then lost my husband.”

Trying to cope

A 37-year-old widow with two children, Nancy courageously trudged on and started a charity in her husband’s name for infertile military couples. The Kip P. Taylor Fund assisted with travel and lodging expenses for couples who received fertility treatments.

Nancy found it impossible to think about returning to her job as editor of a medical newsletter. There were no other family members in Washington. A part-time nanny helped, and friends like Mitchell did their part when they visited.

It was a lonely, painful time.

“At first, I was getting by hour to hour,” she told “Now it’s week to week. I hope someday it will be month to month. But it will be a while.”

But time was not on Nancy’s side. While nursing 3-month-old Luke in February 2002, she felt pain in her breasts. Doctors assumed it was mastitis, an infection of the breast tissue, and put her on antibiotics. When that didn’t work, they did further tests and discovered Nancy had Stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer. She was given two months to live. She initially refused chemotherapy, wanting to maximize her time left with her children. But after being diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer, she began taking herceptin, which blocks cancer cells from growing.

“It basically buys time,” Mitchell says.

Melvin-Taylor packed as much life as she could into her remaining time. She worked on the fund named after her husband. She dealt with the endless paperwork that comes from being a 9/11 widow, even the chore of selling Kip’s car. And she ran a gamut of emotions.

“I’d go down and we’d have gloom and doom weekends,” Mitchell says. “She was very angry. But there were other weekends when she was upbeat, and we’d go apple picking with the kids.”

Memory lives on

Nancy died on Nov. 18, 2003, leaving behind her 4- and 2-year-old boys. She was 39. She is buried next to her husband in Arlington National Cemetery, beneath simple white markers.

Dean and Luke, who soon will turn 15 and 13, have been raised in Colorado the past 11 years by Kip’s brother and sister-in-law, Dean and Donna Taylor. Dean was a lieutenant colonel in the Army, and he retired to raise his brother’s children.

Dean and Donna did not have any children of their own. The Special Operations Warrior Foundation ensured that Dean Ross Taylor and John Luke Taylor will have free college educations.

“You get through it,” Merle Melvin, Nancy’s father, says of the tragedy. “You take things as they come.”

Merle and Ann are divorced. They have four grandsons in all — Nancy’s twin, John, lives in Cazenovia and has two boys. But they don’t often see Dean and Luke.

“It has been a while,” Merle says. “I know Luke plays baseball. That much I know.”

Nancy held the UR points record for 28 years until junior Michelle Relin broke it last month. UR coach Wendy Andreatta told Relin about Melvin-Taylor’s life and death the day before the record fell.

“It’s humbling,” Relin says. “I had no idea she had such a compelling story, and such a moving story. I wish I could have met her this weekend.”

Melvin-Taylor remains first in career game-winning goals and third in goals scored. But again, those are just numbers.

Her legacy is more about the person she was, the wife and mom she became.

“She was an incredibly strong woman,” says Possee, now an associate director for athletics at UR who oversees recreation programs. “She wasn’t just a great athlete, she was a great person. The story is so very sad.”

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