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Chatham Alumna Mara Flanagan - class of ‘15


Radical Gratitude

1993 – 2016

Mara’s love of writing and creating was inseparable from her desire to share art with others.



“One often thinks about creators as the starving artists, the writers alone in a garret crafting the great American novel, or lone sculptors chipping away at stone. Mara chose to create through collaboration, bringing together others to share their gifts and uplift others. Creation was always a collective experience.” —Bill Flanagan

If you go to Mara Flanagan’s Instagram page, you’ll find rows and rows of Pennsylvania skyline—riverscapes, bridge shots, sunsets, and flowers so vivid you can smell them. You won’t, however, find any photos of Mara. This, according to her family and friends, wasn’t uncharacteristic. “Mara was very quiet, a real listener. She tried to connect with people and understand where they were coming from. She was a very other-directed kind of person,” says her father, Bill Flanagan.

Mara Flanagan Chatham Alumna at the ballpark with her family

Despite Mara’s quiet nature, she left a striking impression. Shannon Sankey, a high school classmate at Pittsburgh CAPA and fellow Chatham alumna (2017), describes Mara’s love of bright red lipstick and fingerless gloves: “a sense of style all her own.” At CAPA, Mara majored in literary arts and flourished as both a writer and an advocate for other artists.

“She had extreme self-awareness. I sat in so many classrooms across from her, she always had this thoughtful brow, always thinking, ‘What is my context and how can I make things better where I am?’” —Shannon Sankey

In her freshman year at CAPA, Mara developed an organization called SPLINK, the Student Performing Link. After realizing that students at other high schools in Pittsburgh didn’t have access to the same kinds of enrichment opportunities that students at CAPA had, Mara decided to create an avenue that would provide them with chances to perform. Through SPLINK, Mara produced a variety show that featured creative high schoolers across the Pittsburgh region; she did a TEDxYouth talk on the experience.

“She did all of that as a freshman. She would identify an opportunity and take charge to make something happen. She didn’t worry about asking permission.” —Bill Flanagan

She opens the TED talk with the phrase, “High school can be a blessing.” In her freshman year of high school, she was already keenly aware of the way she had been privileged to interact with art, and rather than hoarding those experiences for herself, she sought to share them. In college, the streak continued.

“I think she was at her peak at Chatham; it brought her so much joy. When we had our summer lunches she would say, ‘This community challenges me so much and they’re so kind and so thoughtful. I can’t see myself anywhere else.’” —Shannon Sankey

In her first semester at Chatham, she founded Chatham’s chapter of HerCampus, an online magazine for college women. Mara wrote myriad articles about Chatham’s culture and community and Pittsburgh’s food and art. In her outgoing Letter From the Editor at HerCampus, Mara wrote,

Publishing anything online presents an unsettling level of vulnerability; we could not be more thankful to each and every one of you, our readers, for inviting us into your Chatham experience. Your respect and hospitality created a safe space for women’s voices online. We did not take one moment of your attention or kindness for granted.

It’s a common plea, one we hear so often it loses meaning, ‘don’t take anything for granted.’ And it’s true, much of life is granted in such a way that can easily be stolen from us. Shortly after Mara graduated in 2015 and received a job writing for Romper, an imprint of Bustle, the online women’s magazine, she was diagnosed with clear cell sarcoma.

In the year and a half that followed Mara’s diagnosis, she latched on to the score from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway phenomenon, Hamilton. At the end of the first act, Aaron Burr implores Alexander Hamilton, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” The sentiment resonated with Mara, as did the production’s casting of Javier Munoz, a cancer survivor who has lived with HIV since 2002.

In the Fall of 2016, shortly before she passed, Mara wrote to Munoz on the impact his story had had on her during a period of unfathomable pain and fear:

Once in an interview, Mr. Miranda said that on the day of his fatal duel, Hamilton had an appointment scheduled a few hours later. I live the same way now: making plans I may never live out, dreaming dreams that may never come true. I look around at how lucky I am to be alive right now, and try to give as much as I can while I’m here. If I died tonight, I would die happy knowing that I live in a world where dreams come true.

Mara would’ve been justified in bitterness or anger. Instead, she gave bits of her heart away like stardust. Says Shannon, “One of the last text messages I got from her said, ‘I just wanted to let you know I have a care package assembled for you. There are some other little things that I want to put in it but I’ve just been so tired.’” Shannon was incredulous: “I was like are you kidding me? You’re in the hospital! It was just so Mara, it was too much.”

Mara Flanagan Chatham Alumna at the waterfront with her family

On the eve of her 23rd birthday, May 6, 2016, Mara wrote the piece that her parents, Bill and Ann, would later name “23,” a piece that was displayed at Mara’s funeral and that Bill now keeps next to his desk, alongside one of Mara’s sunset photos. It’s his favorite piece of Mara’s. Shannon, who was initially heartbroken that she hadn’t got a proper goodbye with Mara, felt solace when she read it, a reminder that Mara would never leave without saying thank you.

In “23”, Mara writes:

I am about 8 minutes away from turning 23. This year has been absolutely wild but I’m so incredibly grateful to feel so incredibly loved. I graduated college, celebrated so many beautiful occasions with family, and met extraordinary, real life heroes. But my biggest heroes are my family members. I will always treasure dad holding my hand, mom sleeping by my side, and Will [her brother] making me laugh. I will treasure the prayers of extended family and the unwavering support of friends. I am grateful, so deeply grateful for all of the love in my life.

Mara’s last Instagram post, from September 2016, is a photo she took from the JKM Library in September 2014. Sunlight bleeds across blue, pink, and orange sky. There is solitude there and also a shocking vibrancy. A reminder to pay attention, to find beauty, and to share that, in whatever way we can.

Mara’s last Instagram post, from September 2016, is a photo she took from the JKM Library in September 2014