WILLIAMSBURG —Eight senior citizens sat in a circle of chairs Tuesday afternoon in a wide room with hardwood floors and mirrored walls.
A ninth chair in their circle had been deliberately left empty.
The empty chair had belonged to Jean Danylko, a 91-year-old woman killed by a crashing helicopter in her Bristol Commons home Sunday.
Danylko was a faithful member of the chair-based exercise strength training class for arthritic seniors at the James City County Recreation Center.
She had been a part of the class for about 17 years, instructor Gail Peck said. Tuesday was the group’s first class without Danylko, and the remaining members began the class by going around the circle, sharing kind words and their favorite memories of their friend.
“She always had a smile on her face and was always very welcoming,” Peck said. “She was more quiet and introspective, but she’d be the first to laugh at a funny comment.”
Peck was not the only person to remember Danylko’s smile.
“I never saw her in a bad mood, not once in all the years I knew her,” said friend June Kasparek, 92. “Some of us get a little cranky at times. Jean never did.”
Kasparek was not a member of the chair exercise class, but she met Danylko through the rec center more than a dozen years ago. Danylko volunteered each Friday afternoon at The Lounge, the rec center’s senior citizen social area, and Kasparek worked there up until four years ago.
The pair remained close friends and met on a regular basis, sometimes at Kasparek’s home and sometimes at restaurants. They last saw each other Friday afternoon for a barbecue lunch at the rec center.
“I’m 92, and we discussed how long we might have had in front of us, and three days later she was gone,” Kasparek said. “We had just been joking about that very same thing on Friday at lunch, and we laughed about it because I expected to go first because I’m eight months older than she.
“To think that Friday was the last time, it’s heartbreaking,” she said.
They bonded over their age, reminisced about their youth and talked about their children.
Danylko had one son, and the family said in a statement she had a large family of step-grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Danylko and Kasparek shared a passion for the music of their younger years such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Tommy Dorsey – “That’s when music was music,” Kasparek said – while proudly maintaining their independence even as old age slowed them down.
Danylko did not use a cane and continued to drive. Peck nicknamed Danylko “the historian” of the arthritis class because she had been a part of it for so long and still remembered the names of all of its former members.
“She was very sweet and soft-spoken, a very gentle lady but very energetic at the same time,” Lounge program coordinator Amy Fiedor said. “She was very proud of the fact that she kept moving and still drove. When I think about Jean, I think about how energetic she was. She was 91, but she didn’t seem it at all.”
As a volunteer receptionist at the Lounge, Danylko greeted guests with her patented smile, answered their questions, made friends with new visitors and laughed with longtime members. Her friends said she bonded with everyone who came past her desk.
“You can’t say more for her,” Kasparek said. “She was always caring, and if there was anything she could do for you she would do it. I can’t say enough kind words. I’m not trying to make her look good now, she was that way.
“She was there if I needed her,” Kasparek added.
When Danylko’s name was released by police Monday, the news rippled through the rec center. Friends, employees and guests were shocked and quickly began reminiscing with one another about the friend they would never see again.
“She might have been quiet but she touched a lot of people,” Fiedor said. “We’re going to miss her.”
She may be missed most on Friday, when someone will have to pick up Danylko’s longtime shift at the Lounge’s front desk.
“Friday is usually a pretty busy day, and there’s going to be a lot of people missing her being there with them,” Fiedor said. “Friday isn’t going to be an easy day.”
For her closest friends, no day without Danylko’s smile will be easy.
“I woke up at 2 o’clock this morning and cried, and I’ll cry until after the funeral is over,” Kasparek said. “You don’t get off a friendship like that just because they’re gone.”
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Andrew Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org