Writing prize honors Mason alum who died at the Pentagon on 9/11

A white rose marks Shelley A. Marshall's name on the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. Photo courtesy of @InMemoriamSept11

George Mason University alumna Shelley A. Marshall, BA Public Administration ’87, was in her office at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. A budget analyst in the comptroller's office of the Defense Intelligence Agency, she was scheduled to move to a new office on the other side of the building later that week.

According to news reports, she called her husband, Donn Marshall, around 9 a.m. to talk about the World Trade Center being hit by a plane. That was the last time he heard from her.

After hearing that the Pentagon had been attacked, Donn rushed to Pentagon's day-care center get their 3-year-old son, Drake, and 20-month-old daughter, Chandler. When he reached the day care and realized his wife was not already there with the children, Donn said he knew she was among the victims.

"If she was OK, she would have been there," he said.

Mason alum Tara Laskowski with the Shelley's Teaware she was awarded as the first recipient of the Shelley A. Marshall Fiction Prize. Photo provided

The following year Donn created the Shelley A. Marshall Foundation to support activities that were of interest to Shelley—reading to her children, creative writing, and tea. In addition to supporting story hours for children at local libraries and intergenerational tea parties at nursing homes, Donn set up a number of writing prizes in Shelley’s name at several of her alma maters, including one at Mason.

Bill Miller, who directed Mason’s MFA in Creative Writing Program from 1992 until his retirement in 2018, started talking to Donn in 2002. In sharing his memories of his wife, Donn told Miller about parties Shelley would throw where each guest was expected to share a story they had written and wear something—a hat, a scarf—that hinted at a moment in the story.

Miller suggested the award as a way to pay tribute to Shelley’s love of storytelling.

“Stories are important ways of communicating and enjoying and celebrating our fellow humanness,” said Miller. “I liked the idea of celebrating someone who loved stories.”

The Shelley A. Marshall Fiction Prize is awarded each year for a single short story. The competition is open to any currently enrolled Mason student and is awarded in the spring.

Many of the students winning the prize have gone on to successful writing careers. Mason alumna Tara Laskowski, the first receipt of the award in 2004, said she remembers that Donn came to the awards ceremony that year and said a few words.

Donn also gave Laskowski one of the Shelley’s Teaware cups created by Oakleigh Ceramics Ltd. in England and based on a drawing by son Drake. The teacups were sold over the years to raise funds to support the foundation.

“It was an honor to be chosen,” said Laskowski, the author of the suspense novels “One Night Gone” and “The Mother Next Door” who graduated with an MFA in 2005. “It meant so much that [Donn] was there. The story behind the award made it all the more meaningful.”

The award is now supported through a variety of sources.

“I kept [the award] going, pulling money from other sources because I think maintaining that tie to an alum who was lost on that day was important,” said Miller, who is also a Mason alum and graduated with an MFA in creative writing in 1987. “I believe in the power of stories. I would love to have gone to one of those parties. Unfortunately, I didn't know her at that time.”

If you would like to support Mason students and honor Shelley Marshall, please visit the CHSS online giving form and indicate “Shelley A. Marshall Fiction Prize” in the comments field.