Grace Rosello | Staff Writer
On Saturday morning on Mellon Patio, dogs, from a teacup Yorkshire terrier to a huge fluffy husky named Socrates, barked, whined and wagged their tails at each other. Duquesne University School of Law provided red and blue bandanas hung around the dog’s collars in honor of the Katie Westbrook 5k and Dog Walk Memorial Race.
Runners stretched as students, supporters and organizers were milling around, drinking coffee, playing cornhole. Most everyone was smiling over the dogs’ antics and in anticipation of the run. Set up along the patio were different stands representing organizations from the law school, including the Buck-a-Duck game representing the Black Law Student Association and a 50/50 raffle sponsored by the Sports & Entertainment Law Society, among others.
“Katie was a huge animal lover,” said Kerry Westbrook, Katie’s younger sister said.“I’m super elated everyone remembers her and comes together in her honor. She was a sweet and loving spirit with a strong sense of justice.”
The story of the 5k, which is 18 years strong, begins with Katie.
Dr. John T. Rago, an associate professor of law at Duquesne, describes Katie as someone with a “passion for life, for all things big and small, with an energy and intensity and depth of compassion that some people go through their whole lives without ever experiencing. You couldn’t meet this girl without knowing there was something very special about her.”
Katie’s life was forever changed when she was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer called osteosarcoma. The condition occurs when a tumor forms around bone and then metastasizes, meaning that the cancer spreads to different or secondary sites from its origin.
Whenever Rago was contacted by a friend at Childrens’ Hospital who knew a young woman who probably wasn’t going to make it and who desperately wanted to be a lawyer, the friend asked if the law school at Duquesne could send her a hat or something.
“My God, we could do better than that!” Rago declared, smiling. Katie attended trial classes at the law school and made connections with law school faculty and staff, who likewise “fell in love with her,” according to Rago. One student gave her a few of his books to read. Another gave her his class ring.
Katie’s two goals in her last year of life were to make it to her birthday and graduation.
“She achieved both,” said Maria Comas, director of career services at the law school, stated. The day of Katie’s death at age 15 was the day Duquesne University was going to honor her at commencement with an honorary degree.
“Bittersweet doesn’t begin to describe [commencement,]” Rago said. “Her mother Beth accepted the degree on her behalf hours after her daughter was gone. There were nearly 3000 people there.”
Katie first dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, and after much “ricocheting,” according to Westbrook, she changed paths and desperately wanted to become a lawyer in order to “represent the underdog.”
Rago wholeheartedly agreed that despite the pain Katie was going through, she accomplished a lot with the short life that she had.
Eighteen years later, Katie still remains part of the law school. Through the efforts of Dr. Rago; Beth Bauer, student organizations assistant with the dean’s office at the law school and Comas, the 5k and dog walk has been organized in honor of a young woman’s dream to become a lawyer.
“Katie’s spirit lives on here at Duquesne. We can feel it today,” Bauer said.
“These law students are living her dream. We want them to know that and also to know that as a law school, we want to build a family and a community.”
The dream and the goal were definitely realized as people spent time together, remembering Katie and matching her forceful presence through those who knew her.
Charlie Possino, owner of Socrates the huge fluffy dog and president of the Student Bar Association, sees the event as representing “one university, one family.” He encourages more undergraduate students to join the cause. The money made from the 5k goes to law school scholarships for prospective students at the university.
Rago keeps a piece of art Katie made for him in his office at the law school. When he thinks of her, he is reminded of her presence as a strong woman and a human presence which inspires him to take measure of what’s important in life.
Fletcher Dunham was the first mens’ finisher, running at 19:00. Michelle Smith was the first womens’ finisher, running at 25:04. The first dog to cross the finish line was Peanut.