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A family mourns

Family members of Mari-Rae Sopper, from left, sister Stacy Sopper, father Bill Sopper, sister Tammy Sopper, mother Marion Kminek and stepfather Frank Kminek, stand during a memorial Service for Sopper at Fremd High School in Palatine, Ill., after receiving the first of two American lags presented to the family by the U.S. Navy Sunday, Sept. 16, 2001. Sopper was a former gymnast at Fremd High School and Iowa State University and was a lieutenant in the Navy's JAG Corps. She was killed when the plane she was on crashed into the Pentagon Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. (AP Photo/Daily Herald, Mark Black)

BLOOMINGTON — Stacy Sopper Lupcho hopes to spend today at memorials at the Pentagon where her sister, Mari-Rae Sopper, died during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Sopper, 35, was onboard the commercial jetliner that slammed into the building where she’d worked as a lawyer for the U.S. Navy a few years earlier. The daughter of late Twin City Realtor Bill Sopper was leaving behind a promising career as a corporate lawyer in Washington, D.C., to pursue a lifelong dream to be a college gymnastics coach.

She earned $98,000 the year before she accepted a one-year contract for $28,000 at the University of California-Santa Barbara. School officials made no promise the program would continue after that time; Sopper had just one season to turn things around.

“She was a risk taker. She had chops,” Sopper Lupcho said of her half sister, the oldest of three Sopper daughters. “She was a little person who carried a big stick.”

Sopper was making the move west when terrorists hijacked the plane and flew it into the Pentagon. Tapes show Sopper boarding the plane with her killers right behind her in line.

Sopper Lupcho, formerly of Bloomington-Normal, exchanged emails with her sister a few days earlier.

“I had told her I was proud of her for sucking it up and following her dream,” said Sopper Lupcho, 37, a mom of two who owns a Web-based children’s clothing and accessories store in St. Augustine, Fla.

The middle sister, Tammy, is eight years older than Sopper Lupcho. Growing up, the trio lived with their moms during the week and their dad on weekends when activities centered on gymnastics.

“I remember spending a lot of time in the bleachers watching them. They were my big sisters, so I wanted to do everything they did. So, I wanted to take dance and gymnastics and all that. That’s just natural,” said Sopper Lupcho, who attended Illinois State University before transferring to Jacksonville University in Florida where she earned a degree in physical education.

Sopper graduated from law school that same year in Colorado after attending Iowa State University on a gymnastics scholarship and the University of North Texas, where she received a master’s degree.

The desire to coach gymnastics stayed with her after she left the Navy and entered private law practice. Her father, who died last year, said at the time it was just bad luck his daughter was following her dream the same day Osama bin Laden created an American nightmare on Sept. 11, 2001.

Sopper Lupcho was late for work that day at an investment banking firm in Jacksonville. When she arrived, her co-workers were huddled around the TV, watching news coverage after the first plane struck the Twin Towers. They were still watching when the second plane hit.

“I went about my day,” she said. “I kept getting updates. People would holler out. It didn’t really hit me what was going on.”

Then came the attack on Washington. The image of the burning Pentagon personalized the events for Sopper Lupcho even though she had no idea her sister was scheduled to fly at the same time.

“I didn’t get emotional until the Pentagon got hit. Mari-Rae had worked there a couple of years prior to that. I started crying.”

Her dad called when Soppper Lupcho arrived home from work. Though the airline wouldn’t tell him, he said he was “pretty sure” Sopper was on the Pentagon plane, she said. A couple of hours later, a friend confirmed her sister was on the flight.

“I pretty much went into shock at that point,” Sopper Lupcho said. “I was in shock for a long time, for months. … We had a memorial. It was all very hazy, it was not real at all.”

“It was traumatic on a national scale, an international scale. Everybody else took it personally, too. But I didn’t relate to that. For me it really was personal. It was all about my sister’s death than it was about any politics,” she said.

Her father died in August 2010, about eight months before Navy Seals killed bin Laden.

“That was a bittersweet thing,” she said, crying for the first time in the interview. “That really reopened a lot of the emotional wounds. It was sad a man had to die, but yet it definitely brought a bit of closure. It’s hard not to react and feel some relief, I guess.”

Life goes on, but the impact of that plane crashing into the Pentagon will always be felt, she said.

“You put one foot in front of the other. Tammy and I, we both are married. We have kids we didn’t have back then. I am still a stay-at-home mom with two girls. I’ll try to explain to them in an objective way the history and explain to them who their aunt was because they will never know her. We’ll just have to try to teach our kids who she was and move forward,” she said.

“I definitely know my life and perspective on life has been shaped by 9/11. But at this point, that’s kind of who I am.”

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