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A sense of honor and grace
Astronaut's mother dies after her car is hit by freight train in Lombard
By Catherine Edman | Daily Herald Staff

The car that Lombard police say was driven by Rose Tani sits in the foreground near the freight train that struck the car. Tani, the mother of astronaut Dan Tani, died in the crash.


Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

Rose Tani


Dan Tani


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Published: 12/19/2007 6:08 PM | Updated: 12/20/2007 12:08 AM

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Unless you knew Rose Tani was 90 years old, you'd never guess that about her.

She was a study in perpetual motion: One minute baking pies for church, the next weeding her expansive backyard garden and giving away half the vegetables before going out for a family dinner.

There was always some story about one of her kids -- or grandkids -- to share.

And with an astronaut son, Dan, currently aboard the International Space Station, questions for Rose were always in abundance.

She never shied from a single question. Not even those about being interned by her own government during World War II because she was of Japanese descent.

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Her grace, generosity, tenacity and endless sense of humor were what friends talked about Wednesday night when the news went out that she died in an afternoon car accident.

"She was everybody's grandmother, mother and friend. She is going to be so missed," said Sandra Hill, a fellow volunteer at the First Church of Lombard United Church of Christ.

The accident is almost unfathomable for a woman so attuned to details.

Shortly before 3 p.m., Tani was stopped northbound on Elizabeth Street behind a full school bus coming from Glenbard East High School. They stopped for an eastbound train.

When it passed, the gates went up, then immediately went back down, said police Lt. Jim Glennon. Tani, the only passenger in a Honda Civic, honked her horn, then drove around the bus.

Her car was hit by a westbound freight train and pushed along the tracks before stopping near Sacred Heart Elementary School. Tani was taken to Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, where she was pronounced dead. Police said crossing gates and warning signals were functioning.

News of her death was delayed for some time in the afternoon: Her son needed to be notified first. He's been aboard the space station since October.

In fact, Rose Tani joined 200 family and friends at Cape Canaveral, Fla., including some from Japan, to watch the shuttle launch that placed him there.

And when she got back, she was so thrilled not only to have seen his second trip to space, but for the chance to spend time with so many people who were important to her.

"She's one of the sweetest women I know," said neighbor Joan Temborius. "I cannot say enough about her. What a loss it is for our country. She was just a marvelous person to grace this earth."

Even after her internment and the death of her husband, Henry, when Dan was 4, she didn't descend into hate.

"Rose had never said a bitter word about it. She never had a bad word to say about anybody," her friend Barbara Barta said.

She'd tell stories like how her baby's diapers froze on the clothesline in the camp. But they weren't hateful, just informative, she said.

Rose Tani was born into a family of six children near Sacramento, Calif., and worked hard on her family's farms, first picking grapes, later strawberries. She met her husband in San Francisco at a Japanese-American Citizens League event, and soon after their first child, Dick, was born they were interned with other Japanese-Americans, according to an interview she gave her church.

The family moved to Lombard in 1964 and her husband died in 1965, leaving Rose to raise their five children.

She came through it all with a sense of grace, said Barta, who's known Rose since Dan was young enough to be antsy and scoot along church pews during services.

"She's just a gentle, gentle lady who is very proud of her kids and had a good sense of humor," Barta said.

And there was that ever-present sense of honor.

"If she promised you a 10-inch pie and it turns out 9 inches, she gives you two 9-inch pies. She did that with me once," she recalled.

Rose always shared stories of her family with relish.

"She came to church one day and said 'I talked to my son for 45 minutes and he's in outer space,'" Hill remembered.

Her Christmas letter this year was just chock full of news.

"I am thankful for my health, although I spent a week in August in the hospital with a 'surprise' heart attack," Rose wrote. Her cardiologist inserted a stent in her artery that "should last another 400 years. How reassuring!"

About the time she was putting the annual newsletter together, she learned her astronaut son would not make it home for Christmas to his wife and two young daughters as expected. And it's not exactly clear when he'll return.

The space shuttle Atlantis was supposed to bring him back to Earth this month, but the flight was delayed repeatedly by problems with the sensors in its external fuel tanks. On Tuesday, he took another of his space walks -- watched by family members -- trying to diagnose problems with power-producing sources on the station.

At the same time, NASA was running yet another test on the Atlantis fuel sensors on Earth. Though the problem was found, officials said they didn't have a new launch date for the shuttle that will bring him home. The earliest the shuttle could launch is Jan. 10.

Always one to keep tabs on her children, Rose Tani last week stood outside her house around dinnertime and watched the space station as it passed overhead. She planned to do the same the next night and send greetings to her son.

With his trip to space out of the way, she mentioned, her son was worried about his next hurdle -- throwing out the first ball at a game for his beloved Chicago Cubs next summer.

Such freely-given reminiscences and stories by Rose will be hard to forget by most who ever met her.

"She was always there," Hill said. "It's going to take a really long time to grasp the absence of her presence."