Remembering what Tammy Zywicki would have liked

On Thursday, in honor of the anniversary, JoAnn and Hank Zywicki went to their daughter's grave.

They'd driven up from their retirement development in Florida, all the way to Pennsylvania, to a little town near where they and Tammy had been born.

Did they really want to do this?

They weren't sure, but there is no surefire happy way to mark the 20th anniversary of a daughter's unsolved murder.

On the way to the grave, they stopped to see Fallingwater, the famous Frank Lloyd Wright home, thinking how much Tammy would have liked it. They have a lot of "Tammy-would-have-liked-this" moments.

This place, this movie, this cat, this lasagna.

What Tammy wouldn't have liked, they know, is for her death to ruin their lives, or the lives of her three brothers, and they've trained themselves not to let it, instead letting the thought of what Tammy would have liked sharpen their own appreciation of things.

Tammy, the art lover and photographer, would have liked the way the light played on Frank Lloyd Wright's house, the trees, the stone, the water.

They thought about that last Thursday.

Then it was on to the cemetery.

*****

Toward the end of August 20 years ago, Tammy Zywicki's parents made a different drive, to the Pennsylvania Turnpike to say goodbye to their only daughter at the turnpike entry.

They hugged Tammy and her younger brother, Daren.

"See you at Christmas," they said.

Tammy drove off in her 1985 Pontiac, en route to her senior year at Grinnell College, a small liberal arts school in Iowa, where she played soccer, studied Spanish and took photos. She dropped her brother off at his Northwestern University dorm, and headed west, alone.

The last time anyone saw her alive, in the middle of the afternoon of Aug. 23, Tammy was standing along I-80 near LaSalle, Ill., next to her car.

Hardly anyone carried cellphones in 1992. Back then, a stranded motorist was truly stranded. A parent could wait a very long time before learning a child was in trouble.

At home in New Jersey on that Sunday night, JoAnn and Hank Zywicki waited for Tammy to call and say she'd landed safely at Grinnell. When too many hours passed, Mrs. Zywicki called the campus police.

The police checked Tammy's dorm, looked for her car on campus. Somebody said, "I thought I saw her."

The next morning the Illinois State Police reported her Pontiac abandoned along I-80.

Photos of Tammy soon appeared from New Jersey to Iowa, in toll booths and rest stops and on TV screens: Tammy's bright eyes, long blond hair, glasses, the sweet round face of a girl. Missing.

The Zywickis camped out in the Chicago home of the parents of one of Tammy's friends. Every day, they went to the police station in LaSalle to wait. Every day they woke up saying, "This will be the day."

But nine days passed, and still no Tammy. They headed home.

They were changing planes in Cincinnati when some official approached and escorted them into a small room. Over the phone, they were told that a body had been found, 500 miles away, near I-44 in Missouri.

Tammy. Her body, stabbed over and over, had been wrapped in a blanket sealed in duct tape.

All over the country, the name Tammy Zywicki became synonymous with danger. Danger to young women, to college students, to parents who helplessly released their children into the world.

*****

"In the beginning, you take it a minute at a time," said JoAnn Zywicki. "Then you go from that to hours. Then all of a sudden one day you think, 'Gee, I haven't thought about her today,' and you know you're moving on."

It was Tuesday and the Zywickis were back in their car, heading home to Florida, talking by phone.

Last week, during the flurry of reports on the FBI's announcement that the investigation was still active, complete with a $50,000 reward, they hadn't wanted to talk about how they spent the 20th anniversary.

Now that it's over, they hope that talking will inspire someone who knows something to come forward.

Hank, a civil engineer, was 52 when Tammy died. JoAnn, who had worked as a part-time temp while raising her four children, was 50. After Tammy's death, she took the most rote job she could find, filing.

"I could just file away and not worry about it," she said.

But they worried. They anguished. They waited for a killer to be caught, watching as leads flared and faded, as the task force dedicated to Tammy disbanded. For years, until she stopped trying so hard, JoAnn dogged law enforcement agencies, frustrated especially by the Illinois State Police.

There had been reports of a man with a semi-trailer truck who stopped for Tammy along the highway. Was the killer a trucker? A serial killer masquerading as a good Samaritan?

Suspects' names came and went. One suspect trucker, an ex-con who the family thinks is the likeliest culprit, has died. The Zywickis fear that everyone who knows anything will vanish before the case is solved.

"Primarily," Hank Zywicki said Tuesday, "what I would like to know was, what made this — I'm going to use the word idiot for lack of a better word — stab her so many times? Tammy was never the kind of person to antagonize anybody."

As he sat in his car, somewhere in Maryland, his voice broke.

The Zywickis keep photos of Tammy in the house, but not too many. They keep her seashells and mementos of Garfield, the comic cat she loved. When they got Wi-Fi not long ago, they named their network after Tammy.

Even so, they try to keep their loss in its proper measure. They know that at some point all parents have to let their children head into the world alone. They take pleasure from the notes they get from the recipients of the Tammy Zywicki scholarship at Grinnell, given annually to a student who values family and believes in relaxation as well as study.

"One of the things that's very inspiring about the two of them is that they didn't get absorbed by it," said Todd Zywicki, their oldest son and a George Mason University law professor. "It didn't defeat them, didn't drive them apart, didn't cause them to blame each other or be so overwhelmed by grief that they couldn't function. If anything, it made them more appreciating, not taking for granted their kids and grandkids."

******

When the Zywickis arrived at the cemetery last Thursday, the sun was out, the air was warm and the grass was freshly cut.

The pink geraniums at Tammy's grave, tended by JoAnn's sister, who lives nearby, were in bloom. Garfield the cat, engraved on the headstone, looked happy.

"It was peaceful," JoAnn Zywicki said. "A perfect day all the way around."

Tammy would have liked it.

mschmich@tribune.com

CHICAGO

More