DIANE URBANI DE LA PAZ: Finding grace in the face of tragedy

I can barely breathe when I think of it: A husband and wife, not unlike myself and my mate, are bicycling into town for lunch on a July day. A pickup truck towing a tractor rolls by. The tractor strikes the husband, even as he is all the way over on the shoulder of the road, wearing a highly visible neon-green jacket. He falls to the pavement, and the driver of the pickup keeps going, until a witness pulls in front of him and gets him to stop.

The husband is airlifted to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, where he enters intensive care.

A week later, his wife becomes a widow.

This is the tragedy that befell Stan and Sigrid Cummings of Port Townsend. The pickup driver, then-81-year-old Gregory Lechtenberg, ended up pleading guilty to vehicular homicide with disregard for the safety of others. The tractor was hanging off his flatbed trailer when it hit Stan, witnesses told the State Patrol.

As the case was coming to a close in Jefferson County Superior Court on March 25, Sigrid wrote a victim impact statement. She shared it with the local media; when Stan was killed last summer, she’d been swamped with media inquiries, and at this point wanted to pre-empt another deluge.

Sigrid has every right to be bitter. Yet in her statement to the court, and in her email messages to me, I didn’t see rancor.

I did see grace.

“I didn’t know anything about Mr. Lechtenberg until March 1st when the Prosecutor’s office kindly sent me the apologies from him and his family, and the reference letters written by friends. He seems like a nice man, an asset to his community and someone who, under different circumstances, Stan and I might have enjoyed knowing,” Sigrid began.

She then writes about Stan, their life together, their children and their grandchildren.

She explains too that Stan was not only a visionary behind the building of the Northwest Maritime Center, but also a founder of the Ocean Institute in California.

This man was her best friend, by her side for more than 31 years.

What would I do if I lost my husband to one man’s negligence, a random disaster? I don’t know.

Today, Sigrid is not railing against Lechtenberg, nor did she want him sent to prison. At his age, she wrote, there is no point in that.

Instead, Lechtenberg was sentenced to 6 months of community custody, a $600 fine and the revocation of his driver’s license.

What Sigrid hopes for now is that those who knew her husband, or who hear of his contributions, will think about supporting the Stan Cummings Classroom, which the Northwest Maritime Center established in his honor. Donations will benefit the center’s youth programs, which include Salish Sea Expeditions, the Port Townsend Maritime Academy, Real World Readiness and the Girls’ Boat Project, according to NWmaritime.org.

“Stan taught me that it’s not so much about what happens to you in life as it is in how you respond to it,” Sigrid wrote me.

She added that as she moves forward with her grief, she is dedicated to making pitchers of lemonade with the huge lemon life has handed her. Support for Stan’s work will help — a kind of sugar to sweeten those pitchers.

When Sigrid met with county prosecutor James Kennedy in late March, she expressed to him her entire family’s gratitude for the apology Lechtenberg gave her.

“I hold no animosity toward him, just a deep sadness for the unfortunate circumstances that intersected our paths.

“We will all have to live with our own grief, and without the man who was killed, and who we all loved.”


Jefferson County Senior Reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected] Her column runs the first and third Wednesdays of the month; the next will appear April 20.

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