Grace Orzechowski, never one to sit on life’s bench, gets one of her own

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  • Grace Orzechowski’™s mother, Anne, and friend Megan Haley rub the granite bench that honors Grace before the dedication ceremony at NHTI on Friday morning. GEOFF FORESTER photos /Monitor staff

  • The photo honoring the scholarship fund announcement for Grace Orzechowski at NHTI on Friday morning, September 17, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • NHTI President Gretchen Mullin-Sawicki speaks to Anne (left), Ray and Hannah Orzechowski druing the dedication of the granite bench at the school.

  • Ray Orzechowski speaks at the dedication of the granite bench in honor of his daughter, Grace, at NHTI on Friday morning, September 17, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Ray Orzechowski gives a speech in honor of his daughter, Grace, at the granite bench dedication at NHTI on Friday morning, September 17, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • NHTI President Gretchen Mullin-Sawicki gives Ray Orzechowski a hug after the ceremony dedicating a granite bench in honor of Grace Orzechowski as her sister, Hannah looks on Friday morning, September 17, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Hannah (left) and Anne Orzechowski listen to Ray Orzechowski give his speech at the dedication of the granite bench at NHTI for Grace Orzechowski on Friday morning, September 17, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Anne Orzechowski puts her hand on the granite seat before the ceremony honoring her daughter, Grace at NHTI on Friday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Hannah, Anne, and Ray Orzechowski listen to the speeches at the granite bench dedication at NHTI for Grace Orzechowski on Friday morning, September 17, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 9/17/2021 4:07:23 PM

The signs were everywhere, some obvious, others not so much.

The center of this universe, the granite bench paying tribute to Grace Orzechowski, was unveiled Friday at New Hampshire Technical Institute. It stands rock-solid, honoring a Concord woman who knew she was dying from brain cancer, yet made people laugh and helped them reach their potential.

She died nine months ago, at age 24, but not before leaving her mark on the radiation therapy program at NHTI. 

The black cardinal, a shadow, engraved on the bench’s smooth surface was a sign, that anytime a family member spotted a cardinal, a spirit that could never fully be corralled, was out for a fly on a nice day.

Grace’s sister, Hannah Orzechowski, has tattoos, subtle and small, on her hand. That cardinal. The letter ‘G’ on her pinky. The infinite symbol on the inside of her ring finger. Grace got one too.

The sisters clandestinely created the tiny infinity symbols on their hands, part of a homemade project, done without parental consent back at Concord High, when the girls, just 17 months apart, told friends they were twins. In a sense, of course, they were.

They bought ink from Michael’s, fashioned needles at the end of a pencil, and poked, jabbed and poked some more. They told their parents just a few years ago.

“I’m from the no-ink generation,” said the girls’ father, Ray Orzechowski, a local dentist. “But I love it now.”

“It was the summer before my senior year,” said Hannah, once a chemical engineering major in college who now does software implementation in Boston.

“I was getting nervous because I knew I’d have to leave her soon, and I said we should do tattoos. It felt like a changing time and I thought we should do this. We promised we would get them touched up, but maybe I won’t.”

The little symbol has, indeed, faded. This sisterhood, however, never will.

“I’m glad I’m here, but it’s hard, it’s hard,” Hannah said. “Every reminder is a little bit harder. Sometimes it just feels like she’s still somewhere. It’s great her legacy is continuing and we’re finding ways to remember her.”

She’ll be remembered by a lot of different segments in the local community. The Concord High history book says she captained the school’s field hockey and lacrosse teams. Tom Arnold, the former owner of Arnie’s restaurant and ice cream place who created a still-growing family flavor there, said her work ethic was second to none.

And Grace’s boyfriend, Tyler Olander, who’s 6-foot-10 and played college basketball at the University of Connecticut, alongside former Boston Celtics star Kemba Walker, said the spirit he saw in Grace was truly unique.

“I’ve been around a lot of team leaders,” Orlander said earlier this year, shortly after Grace had died, “and all I can say to you is that she is above them all.”

Her leadership surfaced everywhere at Concord High and in her daily life, and later moved to an area where few people had gone before. Grace graduated from UConn and pursued an advanced degree in physical therapy at Franklin Pierce University.

Severe headaches in the fall of 2018 led to testing and scans and mystery. She had to leave Franklin Pierce. She was diagnosed with a highly malignant brain tumor in Feb. of 2019.

She endured extensive treatments of chemotherapy and radiation. She lost most of her hair, wore a wig, lost sight in one eye, wore a patch. And she got an idea.

In her weakened condition, physical therapy as a career was out, but Grace took a liking to the medical professionals who walked with her during her painful treatments. She liked what they did, how they did it, the compassion they showed.

So she enrolled at NHTI to become a radiation therapist. Just like that.

“She wanted to help people in the medical field in some way,” said Hannah Thompson of Concord, one of Grace’s closest friends. “She was excited to do this, she was in treatment and taking classes here. She was such a rock star. That was Grace. In chemo and going to class.”

Grace and Hannah met while working at Arnie’s. They were 14 and both played field hockey, Thompson at Bishop Brady. Now, she’s a reading teacher at a private school. Friday was an emotional day and she appreciated the significance of the new bench.

“She’s present in my everyday life and I come here and this bench snaps me back into reality,” Thompson said. “This is a bench for my best friend, and if I want to come here to be with her, this is the place I can do it. It’s heart wrenching, but amazing to see the impact she is still having on the larger community.”

Zoran Boskovic, whose family fled war-torn Serbia 20 years ago when he was a year old, was in the respiratory therapy program at NHTI with Grace two years ago. Now he works at the Payson Center for Cancer Care, where Grace had gone for treatment.

Boskovic was the first recipient of the Grace K. Orzechowski Memorial Scholarship. He said Grace made sure classmates felt comfortable asking about her fight with cancer. He said she led him around that first day of school, when a nervous 18-year-old had no idea where he was going.

And he said Grace kept going to classes, cancer be damned. She even made it once during the pandemic, wearing a mask and joking about her punky haircut.

“She fought like hell,” Boskovic said.

That’s why he was there Friday. Near the entrance to MacCrury Hall. That’s where students in the radiation therapy program go. That’s where a bench now stands, calling Grace a “Future RT.”

Her mother, Anne LaForce, the woman who drove her to campus each day during that dark time and watched her lean hard on a walker, has tattoos, like her oldest daughter.

She’s got an exact replica of Grace’s signature and a heart on her right arm. She’s got crossing cancer ribbons on the inside of her left arm, telling me she’ll think of Grace, “Every time blood is drawn from that spot.”

Anne posed for pictures with her husband, Ray, and daughter Hannah, who’s getting married next September and recently slipped on her engagement ring, big and sparkly.

The ring is surrounded by her tattoos, that old, fading, rebellious infinity symbol on one side, the professionally done, recently-acquired ‘G’ on the other.

The placement of the ‘G’ had strategic value.

“I got engaged a few months ago and we’re finding time to celebrate,” Hannah said. “I got the tattoo put here before I got engaged, knowing she would want to be right there, in the middle of everything.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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