Classmates stunned by loss of vivacious Paly graduate
Friends recall Emily Benatar as exuberant, creative, with wide social circle
Hundreds will gather Saturday to remember the life of Emily Benatar, a vivacious 2011 Palo Alto High School graduate who died May 9 in St. Louis, where she had been a first-year student at Washington University.
Benatar's friends at colleges across the country were in the midst of final exams when they learned their cheerful and accomplished childhood friend had lost her battle against meningococcal disease after three weeks in the hospital.
"Emily dying is not just a personal loss or a communal loss," said her friend Anna von Clemm. "It is a loss to society. I know in the deepest part of me that Emily was going to do something not just great but incredible with her life."
Though Benatar had been vaccinated against meningitis, she contracted a strain not covered by the vaccine.
Initially lacking the classic symptom of a headache, she was twice sent home by doctors before a severe headache led to a diagnosis. After an initial coma, she rallied, leading to hopes she would recover. But a subsequent swelling of the brain caused her death, her parents said.
The loss of their charismatic classmate devastated Benatar's childhood friends as they completed their freshman studies and trickled back to Palo Alto for the summer.
They flocked to the Benatar home as her parents, Lisa and Darrell, and sisters, Isabel and Maya, observed the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva, receiving friends at their house this past week.
On Wednesday, the Benatars sat in their living room surrounded by countless bouquets, photographs, scrapbooks and other reminders of Emily, including many of her handicrafts.
Lisa Benatar wore a simple necklace of a rounded piece of sea glass clasped in silver that had been crafted by her daughter.
"A lot of people are walking around wearing jewelry made by her," Darrell Benatar said.
Emily Benatar loved to knit and crochet and was known for fashioning colorful wallets made out of odd materials like Capri Sun containers and duct tape.
She filled sketchbooks with her drawings — including some that her parents used in designing the family home they built three years ago.
"Whenever there was a judgment call on anything aesthetic, I'd just ask Emily and go with it," Darrell Benatar said.
Emily Benatar was a lacrosse player at Paly, head of the school's Green Team and an honor student. At Washington University, she was contemplating a double major in math and art or design.
"Emily was blessed with all these gifts," her father said.
"But what comes through the most from her friends is that she was kind. There were just so many people who felt like Emily included them. There was no pretension, and that made people want to be around her."
She was born at Stanford Hospital as her mother was completing an engineering doctorate at Stanford. The family remained in Palo Alto, where Emily participated in several preschool programs including Parents Nursery School and T'Enna at the Jewish Community Center.
She attended kindergarten at Addison Elementary School but switched to Escondido in first-grade after being admitted to the Spanish Immersion Program there.
"One day when I was at her house she got an unknown phone call" from the community where she lived one summer in Nicaragua, recalled Megan Coleman, a friend since kindergarten. "She answered it and started talking in her amazing, fluent Spanish."
Benatar was famous among her friends for keeping a binder of beauty tips and trying them out on her friends.
"She was an amazing student with tons of friends," said Paly friend Gracie Cain.
"She could light up a room with her smile or make you laugh until your stomach hurt.
"She was an outstanding artist, an amazing daughter, a loving sister and as true a friend as you could ever hope for."
Benatar traveled the world with her family and made multiple trips to Spanish-speaking countries, including Mexico, Spain and Nicaragua, because of her Spanish.
On an eighth-grade trip to Spain, friends recalled that she was the first to volunteer to "run with the bulls" — actually, practice a bullfight with a baby bull, her parents said.
"She was always open to new ideas and never backed down from a challenge," Coleman said.
After her Paly graduation last June, Benatar traveled to Europe with von Clemm and Sahana Kumar, backpacking from hostel to hostel through four countries over two weeks.
"There is no way I could have known what would happen a mere nine months later, but I knew it was an amazing time when it happened," Kumar said of the trip.
"Although her death has created a sense of emptiness within me, I have decided that the best thing I can do is to live life the way Emily did."
A memorial service for Benatar will be held Saturday, May 19, at 7 p.m. at Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Alto Hills. The Benatars have established the Emily Benatar Memorial Fund to honor their daughter. Details are available at www.emilybenatar.com.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.