HUNTINGTON — Against the cloudless sky and deep blue waters, Dr. Paul Wesley Ambrose, 32, grinned at the camera as he leaned against the side of a boat. He held in his arms a 4-foot-long mahi-mahi he caught earlier that day off the North Carolina coast.
"It doesn't get any better than this," he said. He was with his father and mother on an August 2001 vacation to Atlantic Beach.
A month later, Paul was on board American Airlines Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon. He was a senior clinical adviser for the U.S. surgeon general and flying to Los Angeles for an adolescent obesity conference.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Ken Ambrose, Marshall University's sociology and anthropology department chairman, clicked from one picture to another on his computer. This time Paul was on the beach with his arms around his future fiancée, Bianca Angelino. Their eyes locked as Angelino glanced up at her smiling boyfriend. They got engaged two weeks before Sept. 11.
As the anniversary of Paul's death nears, friends and family said they still struggle with the sudden loss of such a unique person. Paul climbed rocks, practiced tae kwon do and loved whitewater rafting. Paul read odd books and listened to Goth music. He drove a black car covered in heavy-metal stickers.
He had bright blue eyes and a chiseled frame. A 1995 Marshall University School of Medicine graduate, he did his family medicine residency at Dartmouth University Hospital and later got a Harvard University public health degree.
Paul, who had been tagged as a future U.S. surgeon general, saw the prestigious degrees as the credentials he needed to get something done, said Dr. Robert Walker, Paul's friend, neighbor and former professor. He wanted to change public policy to help the poor, among other goals.
His father finds comfort in his photos. Walker, associate dean for clinical affairs and professor of community health at Marshall, finds solace in the numerous accolades Paul received posthumously, like the U.S. Surgeon General's Medallion, the federal department's highest honor.
"The fact that people have picked up on this makes me think that people valued his values," Walker said. "For [surgeon generals] David Satcher and C. Everett Koop to come to West Virginia, or rename their conferences for him, is really touching."
Another week, another award
Condolence cards from friends, family and strangers fill baskets at the front door of the Ambroses' Barboursville home. The U.S. Surgeon General's report on preventing obesity, which was dedicated to Paul, sits on a table.
"It seems like every few weeks, Paul gets a new recognition," said Sharon Ambrose, as she shuffled through some of the awards. Sharon is chief operating officer at St. Mary's Hospital.
Ken and Sharon have attended almost every awards ceremony. In March, they traveled to Texas for a recognition presentation during the annual meeting of the American Medical Student Association. About 30,000 medical students and residents nationwide are involved in AMSA, which lobbies for improved medical training and enhanced health for the medically underserved.
Paul was AMSA's legislative affairs director in 1995 and was involved in the local chapter at Marshall as a student.
In July, his parents went to the Barboursville Little League Softball Tournament. It was dedicated to Paul.
Sharon and Ken said it was just as hard to meet President Bush as it was sitting in the stands at the Little League game, with life-size photos of Paul staring back at them and streams of softball players carrying American flags.
"We appreciate everything everyone has done and we want people to know what was lost," she said. "But it's very hard at the same time."
During the interview for this story, Sharon did most of the talking. Ken sat next to her, his arm draped over her on the back of the couch.
"Paul's parents are so gracious, they go everywhere, accepting things on Paul's behalf," said Walker, who lives down the street from the Ambrose family. "But I'm just afraid they haven't had enough private time to grieve."
The first 'worst thing that could ever happen'
Sharon and Ken met while students at Duke University. She was a New Jersey native earning a bachelor's degree in nursing. He was getting a master's in divinity. They lived in Scotland before settling in Ken's home state of West Virginia.
They adopted both of their sons. Their eldest son, Kenneth Scott, was three years older than Paul. In 1998, he died of heart problems. Like Paul, he was 32 years old.
"When Scott died, we thought the worst thing that could ever happen had happened," Sharon said. "We thought that would be the worst experience of our entire life. That was obviously not true."
Paul spoke at his brother's funeral. After that, he did little things to relieve his parents' anxiety. He always called when he arrived on trips to tell them he was safe.
On Sept. 11, Sharon tried calling him.
"I kept calling his cell phone number," Sharon began. "And I kept hearing his voice message, so I kept thinking, 'His phone is in one piece, his phone is in one piece.' ''
But Paul left his cell phone with Angelino before he boarded the 8:30 a.m. flight.
They first started to worry about Paul because his office was near the Pentagon. Then they remembered he was flying to Los Angeles. A phone call from Angelino put their nerves at ease — temporarily. Paul had taken an early morning flight to Los Angles, she said, so he was probably flying over the Midwest and not on the hijacked plane.
But Ken and Sharon began to put pieces together. They matched his flight number to the hijacked plane.
"We put things together a lot quicker than Bianca [Angelino] did," Ken said.
"I don't remember much of what happened after that," Sharon added. "We somehow got to Washington to be with Bianca. Ken's brother and wife rode up with us and [Angelino's] parents drove in from Texas.
"I remember Friday being a day of prayer at the Washington National Cathedral and all I wanted to do was to be in the church. But when I called, they said the public was not invited. They said they couldn't let us in, even if we were family of a victim.
"So I told Ken to hand me the phone book. I called the White House and they sent a Secret Service guy to escort us into the Cathedral."
Down the road from the Ambroses' Pea Ridge home, Walker was watching the Sept. 11 events unfold on television when his wife walked sobbing into the room.
"It's possible that Paul was on the plane," Walker recalled his wife's words. "But for some reason, I thought she meant in the Pentagon. Paul wasn't in the Pentagon, he wasn't with the military. I could not get my mind on the plane. I foolishly convinced her that this wasn't so, until a neighbor called.
"At that point, I started thinking of bits and pieces, of the lost potential, the unfairness, the rage and sadness."
'From Paul, we learned to think outside yourself'
The one-year anniversary will not give Ken and Sharon closure. When Paul's remains were identified around Thanksgiving, they didn't find closure.
"It's too far beyond the comprehension of reality," Sharon said, "to come to grips with the idea that someone would knowingly do that to other people.
"And I wonder about that last hour. Paul was in the best of shape and would not have sat still if someone was harming other people."
Holidays will continue to be painful. Paul's birthday is around Christmas. Their first son died near Thanksgiving.
Dr. Pat Brown, associate dean for student affairs at Marshall's school of medicine, said he hoped to focus this next year on Paul's passion for pet projects, such as preventive health and the plight of the medically underserved.
"Otherwise, it'll be a horrible year to get through," Brown said.
When Paul came to Huntington, he often visited Brown and Walker at Marshall. On April Fools' Day, Paul disguised his voice on the phone, said he was from a crediting agency and scolded Brown.
"He did that three years in a row," Brown laughed.
Above Brown's desk is a Brian Andreas' StoryPeople print with this inscription: "In those days, we finally chose to walk like giants & hold the world in arms grown strong with love & there may be many things we forget in the days to come, but this will not be one of them."