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'360-degree' support from school keeps math teacher upright after tragedy

 051721CHARLES-TRAGEDY-SUPPORT

John Charles, a math teacher at De La Salle High School in New Orleans, stands May 4, 2021, with Melissa Tyler, the best friend of his daughter Lauren, an attorney who was found murdered in her Maryland home in March. Charles says he has been supported through the tragedy by his Catholic faith and the school community. (CNS photo/Amy Diaz, De La Salle High School via Clarion Herald)

 

By Peter Finney Jr.

Catholic News Service

 

        NEW ORLEANS (CNS) - John Charles was teaching at De La Salle High School in New Orleans on Monday, March 8, when he received a telephone call from his daughter Lauren's best friend, Melissa Tyler.

        Tyler's message was both cryptic and sobering: Lauren, Charles' only child, a 40-year-old attorney, was missing and had not reported that morning to her job as a project manager for a defense contractor in Washington.

        Tyler knew Lauren never would go AWOL. As a lead technology litigator, she directed a team of 43 people and was known as the brightest light in the room.

        She also was in the process of filing for divorce from her husband.

        "It would have been highly unusual for her not to check in," Tyler told the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. "And this is the beauty of Lauren: She connected all of her friends so much so that we were like family members.

        "When she didn't check into work that morning, everyone started calling each other and they said, 'We need to call Melissa.' And then I called 'Daddy' and said, 'You know, Lauren's missing.'"

        "Daddy" was Tyler's endearing nickname for Lauren's father. The two girls first met at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans 26 years ago, and they had spent many evenings camped out at Lauren's house, doing homework.

        "He was a physics teacher, and Lauren and I were physics partners our senior year," Tyler said of Charles. "Daddy walked through the room one day, and I was like, 'Daddy, can you help us?' And he did not break stride. He kept on walking and said, 'Nope.' In later years I realized it was because he believed we could do it. He was cool and funny and super smart and a straight shooter."

        Like her earlier phone call to Charles on that Monday, Tyler's text message later in the day -- that she needed to see Daddy -- also came when he was in class. Later, Charles said, a custodian came into his math class to tell him a family member was there to meet him.

        "At that point, I knew it was not good," Charles said.

        In a parlor near the school's front entrance, Tyler told Charles that Lauren had been found dead inside her Maryland home, and police had arrested her estranged husband, Reginald Dunlap Jr., on a charge of first-degree murder.

        Their private meeting became a moment when a Catholic school bands together in prayer. Charles called it "a cohort of love." One by one, teachers and administrators came to offer hugs and prayers.

        Words failed.

        "It's a day-by-day thing," Charles said. "You know, people are telling me things that I cannot necessarily accept at face value. They tell me things like 'You're strong' or 'You have good faith' or 'You're acting like a model for us.' I can't accept those accolades because I don't feel those accolades.

        "But I do my best to try to establish and strengthen my faith. I believe in the divine providence of God. I've got testimony that it does exist and that he truly does not put things on you more than you can handle."

        He added, "God did not put this on me, right, but he is providing me with the grace necessary to get through it. That does involve the support I'm getting from the De La Salle family, which is enormous. Folks say, 'You're standing up!' and I say that's because I've got 360 degrees of support, so I can't possibly fall."

        That support became particularly tangible through the De La Salle Service Club, co-moderated by Peggy St. John and Ana Garcia. In previous years, the club collected money, bedding, cleaning supplies and toys for the New Orleans Women and Children's Shelter, which cares for homeless families and works to get them into stable living situations.

        After Lauren's murder the club decided to honor Charles and Lauren by ramping up their efforts for the shelter, collecting more than $6,000 in donations and supplies.

        But the incredible God moment is this: Other than Charles, no one at the school knew that Tyler, Lauren's best friend, happened to be the shelter's development director.

        St. John said she emailed a staff member at the center to explain "why we wanted to do this project, and she said, 'Are you kidding me? Melissa, our development director, has been best friends with Lauren for 26 years!' We had no idea that connection existed. It was just like divine intervention."

        De La Salle senior Anna Hescock, service club president, said when she saw Charles walk through the hallway, she was determined not to let him down.

        "I was like, 'We're going to make our stand; we're going to make sure everybody participates,'" Hescock said. "I would spend two of my class periods every day just organizing the boxes."

        Charles said he will not attend the murder trial, which is scheduled for October. Tyler will be there.

        He is praying for the day when he can return to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church for Mass, because that's where Oblate Father Tony Rigoli and a welcoming community are there for him.

        "I just don't know how I can handle that emotionally," Charles said.

        The students' and fellow teachers' love, however, has been a balm in Gilead.

        "It's been a sequence of crying, hollering, yelling, in the room just getting it out. But these kids and the school have embraced me like I am an integral part of a family," Charles said.

        "It's been the absolute place where I feel loved and supported."

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