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The Providence Journal

They Realize How Little They Knew


January 24, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Providence Journal. All rights reserved. 

In the tasteful 18th-floor digs of Holland & Knight, Carmen McDougall was known for hard work, an easy way of lightening the daily load and two very polite kids who sometimes visited her on the job.

* * *

When she died last week - two days after being hit by a car in Middletown some of the people whose professional lives she touched every day took stock of how well they truly knew her. And they realized that it took her death to help them know her better.

"From my perspective, you're running around, you see these folks, you know everybody by the first name and that's about it," says William Devereaux, one of the lawyers in the firm. "You just don't know that much about people's lives. Then something like this happens." He sat in a conference room with a great view of downtown Providence. Holland & Knight is a large national firm with about 35 lawyers in its local office.

And Devereaux and other lawyers in the firm have been thinking this week about how they can work so very close to someone day after day and not be close to them at all.

McDougall, who was originally from Puerto Rico, had been at the firm for about eight months. She actually worked for Pitney Bowes, which operates the firm's copy room. That means she made copies for the lawyers, made mail runs and handled faxes and FedEx deliveries.

"That's the pressure point of the firm," says Peter Frazier, another lawyer at Holland & Knight. "Especially from 4 to 6, there's a lot of last-minute stuff. It's a hotbed. And Carmen seemed unflappable."

Frazier remembers getting off the elevator last Friday and seeing people standing outside the copy room, red-eyed from crying at the news of McDougall's death.

"It does demonstrate how fleeting and fragile life can be. And for it to happen to someone so nice only compounds the sadness."

McDougall was the tall one in a recent snapshot of the five people who work in the copy room. Those who shared the duties remember her as a woman who loved salsa dancing and the rich coffee her father sent her from Puerto Rico. They remember her, too, as a "life force," a "spitfire" who could snap her fingers and change the mood from heavy to light.

"And her kids her kids were her absolute joy," says Lisa Wilson, who also worked in the copy room. "She just lived for her kids."

McDougall, who was divorced, rode the bus to and from work to save money. She had just gotten off the bus on West Main Road near her home in Middletown on Jan. 15 and was crossing the road when she was struck by a car. She died two days later. She was 39. Three of her organs were donated to three very ill people.

"It's a wonderful gift out of tragedy," Wilson says. "Three people get a chance."

There was a memorial service for Carmen McDougall at St. Joseph Church, in Newport, last Saturday. Several members of Holland & Knight attended. They got to see part of her life they hadn't known about.

"It was reassuring, going to the memorial service," says Frazier. "The church was packed. You realize that the contact you have with people at work is often very tangential. You don't know the sphere they impact. So it was very reassuring to see that she was part of a much bigger community."

McDougall was buried in her native Puerto Rico. The partners of Holland & Knight are discussing ways in which they can pay tribute to a woman who had worked with them only briefly but had touched them in ways they didn't fully realize until last week.

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