Updated: February 24, 2012 at 12:00 am
A week after her husband and two young sons died in a 1995 plane crash, Nancy Saltzman returned to her job as principal of Broadmoor Elementary School. Some people were flabbergasted.
“How could you go back to work a week after the crash?” she recalls several people asking her.
How could she not, she thought.
“The choice was, kill myself, or go out and make a difference,” says Saltzman. “Going back to work was the best thing, and a lesson for the kids: When bad things happen, you can be sad, but you go on. You talk about it. This is how I survived.”
Saltzman’s many friends and acquaintances in the Pikes Peak area have long been inspired by her strength and perseverance, not only because of how she dealt with deaths of her husband, Joel Herzog, and sons Seth, 11, and Adam, 12, but because of how she responded to her two bouts with breast cancer, the sudden death of a sister in 2005, the deaths of her parents and the loss of a best friend in a car accident.
Now, she hopes to inspire a lot more people with a memoir she’s written, tentatively titled “Surviving the Crash.” She wrote it at the urging of Dan Cook, a freelance writer from Portland, Ore., who interviewed her for the Colorado Springs Business Journal’s “Women of Influence” section. Cook hooked her up with an editor from Portland, and Saltzman is looking to the editor to polish the book before she self-publishes it this year.
“When I sat down with Dan, we talked about what should be included. He said, ‘people ask all the time how you survived this. I had some thoughts about how I survived; the book helped me clarify it,” Saltzman says.
It helps that Saltzman has always had a positive slant on life. Her mother would tell her she was a Pollyanna “because I do look at the bright side of things.”
At one point, however, someone else had to help her plug back into her sunny side. It was 1988, and she was assistant principal at Timberview Middle School. She was walking down the hall with a pinched look on her face, and a teacher told her: “You’re taking this job way too seriously.”
“So I started keeping track of all the fun things about my job,” she says. “I’d write things down, I’d keep notes the kids gave me.”
It led to a sideline as a motivational speaker to encourage educators to recognize and appreciate the positive side of their work. She called it “If I Couldn’t Laugh About It, I Would Have Strangled Myself By Now.”
In 1990, she was diagnosed with breast cancer — a disease that recurred a few years later. She had a hysterectomy, chemo and radiation. She lost her hair and wore a wig. She had to tell her sons that doctors would have to remove one of her breasts. The ordeal found its way into her speeches.
But that could be considered a tremor compared with the earthquake that was about to upend her life. It was Sept. 24, 1995, and she and her family were returning from a trip to Las Vegas to attend a tennis tournament and celebrate Seth’s 11th birthday. Herzog and the boys were taking a private plane back to Colorado Springs. She took a commercial flight because there was no room in the rented plane that Herzog and the boys were boarding with their friends — the pilot and his wife. The plane crashed in thick fog near Westcliffe.
It’s all in the book, which she calls her “dream” project. So is her tale of survival, and her decision to go back to work so soon.
“I had a reason to get up every day,” she says. “I had to feed Adam and Seth’s dogs, and I had work; I believed I made a difference at school.”
She also had a lot of support from friends, family and her colleagues and students. A therapist helped her get through the first rough months after the plane crash, and was there for her again when she started dating. She’s now in a relationship with a retired Air Force colonel and businessman, Greg Roman.
Saltzman retired in 2006 after 32 years in education, and began focusing on writing. She took several writing classes and joined writing groups, but it wasn’t until her conversation with Cook that she felt compelled to tell her story.
“Two things compelled me: My family was amazing. My first thought was to honor them,” she says. “And then, I really do believe we’re here to make a difference. People tell me they’re curious about me; that I’m an inspiration.”
In fact, people have called her out of the blue for advice and consolation after losing multiple loved ones. She talked every night for three months to someone who lost several family members in a TWA crash in the ‘90s. A woman who saw the Herzog family headstones at the cemetery tracked her down and said “learning about you surviving saved my life.”
To those who might say they couldn’t survive what she went through, she shakes her head.
“I find that offensive,” she says. “You actually don’t know what you’ll do until you’re faced with it. I hope you don’t, but you’ll be surprised by what you can do.”
And if that’s not inspiration enough, just wait for the book.
Contact Barbara Cotter: 636-0194
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