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May 21, 2009

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Daughter’s murder inspires local mom to write best-selling, honored book of poetry

Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno

After earning a rave review in the April 12 issue of the New York Times by critic David Kirby, Chestnut Hill area poet Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno’s recently published book, Slamming Open the Door, shot to number 15 in overall poetry sales in the U.S., according to amazon.com (just below Robert Frost and John Updike, pretty impressive company).

And if that were not enough, the book also won the coveted Beatrice Hawley Award (this poetry contest is open to emerging and established poets residing in the U.S.; requirements for entrants are that the submitted work for the contest be an unpublished, book-length work of poetry), and two of its poems been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. (This is a prestigious American literary prize by Pushcart Press that honors the best “poetry, short fiction, essays or literary whatnot” published in the small presses over the previous year.) The first poem in the book, “Death Barged In,” was selected by the Academy of American Poets as their “poem for the day” on April 15 (which was sent to thousands of readers and poets across the country).

Ordinarily, such acclaim for a relatively unknown writer would be cause for unrestrained celebration and rejoicing, but in this case there were tragically mixed emotions. That’s because Slamming Open the Door would have never been written except for the fact that Bonanno’s beautiful, bright daughter, Leidy (pronounced “Lady”), 21, who had graduated from Jenks Elementary School and Bishop McDevitt High School, was murdered July 7, 2003, by a deranged young man with whom she had broken off a relationship. Virtually every poem in the book deals with some aspect of the murder and its aftermath.

“I really did not want to write anything about it for one year afterwards except for a poem I wrote for the memorial service,” said Bonanno, 53, a teacher of English and creative writing at Cheltenham High School who has been writing poetry since childhood, “but it (the murder) was a mountain standing in the way. It had to be addressed before I could consider writing about any other subjects.

“This book wanted to be written, although it took me four years to write. Writing these poems was therapeutic, but it was also painful because it brought back all the memories and all the details...

“There is a spiritual component to this book,” added Bonanno, who lived in Mt. Airy for 25 years with her husband and two children before moving to Oreland eight years ago. “I feel Leidy’s presence and sometimes see signs of her presence. I now acknowledge that there are mysteries in the universe that we will never understand. I think Leidy lives on, and I’m OK not knowing more than that.”

Leidy Bonanno, who grew up in Mt. Airy and graduated from Jenks Elementary School, Bishop McDevitt High School and the Reading Hospital School of Nursing, was murdered at age 21 just as she was due to start a job as a nurse in the cardiac care unit at Reading Hospital.

A native of Reading, Kathleen came to Philly to attend Temple University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in English and a master’s in education. She proceeded to teach at Dobbins High School in North Philly for five years and has been at Cheltenham High School for 13 years.

Kathleen has been married for 26 years to David Bonanno, a native of Caldwell, NJ, whom she met while both were students at Temple. Also a poetry aficionado, David applied for a job at the American Poetry Review after college, offering to “work for free.” As a result, he was hired, eventually became a co-editor and has been there for more than 30 years. (He now gets paid.) Kathleen, meanwhile, has had her work appear in several publications such as Women’s Review of Books and Margie: An American Journal of Poetry.

In 1987 the couple adopted two siblings — Leidy, 4, nicknamed Ladybug, and Luis, 3 — who had essentially been abandoned by their birth parents in their native Chile. Luis attended the Center School in Abington for children with learning disabilities and then Springfield High School. Today Luis, 25, is a roofer and a resident of Lansdale.

“We all loved living in Mt. Airy,” said Kathleen. “It was a perfect place to raise a bi-racial family. We had very nice neighbors, and we loved the Unitarian Church on Lincoln Drive and still go there.”

Things were just about perfect when Leidy decided to attend nursing school after graduation from Bishop McDevitt High School. She decided the best school for her was the Reading Hospital School of Nursing.

“I was so glad she was going to school there,” said Kathleen. “First of all, I had lots of relatives there who would be a support system for her. My uncle was director of medicine at the hospital, and I had two other relatives at the hospital, a doctor and a psychologist. What could be better? And we also thought she’d be safer there than at some school in Philadelphia.”

Leidy blossomed in Reading, graduated from the nursing school and was accepted to work in the cardiac unit at Reading Hospital. Leidy told her mom that she had just broken up with Joseph Eaddy, 28, a phlebotomist (one who draws blood) at Reading Hospital, after he stole her credit card information from her computer, managed to purchase a motorcycle and have it billed to her. When Leidy discovered what had happened, she left a phone message for Eaddy’s supervisor, explaining what he had done.

“She never told us,” said Kathleen, “but he had threatened her. There was testimony in court that he had said, ‘If you ever break up with me, don’t step foot in Reading again.’”

Leidy did not show up to work for her first day at Reading Hospital. When police went to her apartment, they found that she had been strangled by a telephone cord wrapped around her neck three times. Suspicion immediately fell on Eaddy, but he was not arrested until six months later. (Articles in the Local by Tom Namako, who is now a reporter with the New York Post, helped inform Leidy’s old friends and neighbors about the tragedy.)

“Detectives told us they took their time,” said Kathleen, “because they wanted to make 100 percent sure they had so much evidence that there would be no chance whatsoever that Eaddy could escape justice.” Eaddy was convicted of first-degree murder and is now serving a life sentence without parole at a prison in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Bonanno has become an advocate for victims’ rights and is a member of the Montgomery Country Parents of Murdered Children. She received a 2008 “Women of Courage/Women of Inspiration Purple Ribbon Award” from Lutheran Settlement House in Philadelphia.

Her book, published by Alice James Books (alicejamesbooks.org; Alice James was a sister of famed novelist Henry James), an affiliate of the University of Maine, has received numerous accolades in addition to the review in the New York Times mentioned earlier. For example, one in the Library Journal said in part: “Written with skill in tight, spare lines without sentimentality or melodrama, Bonanno launches readers through the experience, one that evokes a universal terror ... A stunning first book.”

Bonanno appeared before more than 100 people at a book reading/signing April 24 at Barnes & Noble in Plymouth Meeting and before 60 people April 26 at the Chestnut Hill Gallery, 8117 Germantown Ave., co-owned by her sister, Suzanne Sheeder. Bonanno has donated some of the proceeds of the sales of her book ($15.95 per copy) to the Young Authors Project in the Cheltenham School District and to the Leidy Sheeder Bonanno Memorial Scholarship at the Reading Hospital School of Nursing.

On Sunday, May 31, noon, Kathleen will have a book signing in the dining room of the Unitarian Church of Germantown, 6511 Lincoln Drive, and in the coming months she will make many other appearances in several states at churches, universities, victims’ rights organizations, libraries and book groups.

For more information, contact Kathleen at slammingopenthedoor@yahoo.com




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