Once a month, Kathy Cormier gets up early and drives to her job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a crate of small potted plants, or an array of flowers and figurines, in tow.
When she arrives on campus she hauls her colorful bounty into the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research building where she works, and sets it down in the long hallway near the entrance at the corner of Vassar and Main streets.
Kneeling there, the flowers and soil all around her, she begins her faithful ritual in the pre-dawn hours.
For more than a year, Cormier has been quietly arranging flowers inside of a planter that sits beneath a display in her building for the Sean Collier Memorial, the large stone structure just outside that honors an MIT police officer who was fatally shot after the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013.
No one has asked her to do it, and it’s certainly not in her job description as a core leader at the institute. It just called to her one day. And in a time beset by the pandemic and political strife, it has felt like a small but tangible way she can make the community better, a simple act of joy for herself and those around her.
“I do it because it brings me pleasure,” said Cormier, who has worked at MIT for 17 years. “Here’s something that’s empty that I can fill, and make myself feel better and make other people — hopefully — feel better.”
Cormier first started putting plants and other decorations in the flower box in July last year, after the large display was moved indoors so that construction crews could do work on the sidewalks near the Vassar Street memorial, she said.
While the display, which features a picture of Collier and explains the meaning of the structure, was brought inside for safe keeping, it wasn’t entirely accessible. With so many people working from home during the pandemic, the planter stayed empty for some time.
“Someone else put the plants in” when the planter was outside, Cormier said. “But they couldn’t get into our building because all our buildings were locked.”
When she started returning to the office she walked past the display a few times before a thought occurred: What if she spruced up the planter and moved the sign against the floor-to-ceiling windows facing Main Street, so more people could see and enjoy it?
After getting approval from people within her building, Cormier returned with a box of lavender plants. So began her journey of tending to the display.
In the beginning, Cormier changed up the arrangement every few months or so. But her project quickly evolved, and she soon started refreshing the planter on a monthly basis — adding a dash of creativity each time.
In October last year, she placed small pumpkins in the soil next to plants. Two months later, she arranged action figures as if they were stringing up holiday lights. In January, she enlisted the help of her two children to make paper cranes she tucked into the greenery of the display, symbolizing peace. And in February, she arrayed a collection of small plastic dinosaurs roaming among what looked like prehistoric ferns.
“It became a monthly thing, kind of doing a theme,” said Cormier, 52, who buys the plants and flowers from a variety of stores in Gardner, where she lives. “I try to come up with something that everyone is familiar with.”
Last Christmas, MIT Police decided to shine a light on Cormier’s good deed. Realizing she wouldn’t be in the building for a week during the holiday break, she reached out to the department to ask if they could water the plants in her absence (she had been doing it herself once a week, since her office is nearby).
They agreed, but also asked if she would send them pictures of her previous displays, which they later shared from the department’s Twitter account.
“Thank U to Kathy Cormier at Hope Babette Tang Histology Facility for keeping the sign for the Collier Memorial bright & inviting!” police wrote. “Enjoy the photos of the beautiful planters.”
Thank U to Kathy Cormier at Hope Babette Tang Histology Facility for keeping the sign for the Collier Memorial, bright & inviting!— MIT Police (@MITPolice) December 22, 2020
Enjoy the photos of the beautiful planters for the months Aug, Oct & Dec. In the Dec planter, the Avengers are helping to decorate the trees w lights pic.twitter.com/8aqgvDBeO8
Each month since that post, police have shared pictures of Cormier’s creative arrangements. The latest tweet came on Nov. 1, after Cormier presented a mix of orange, purple, and pink flowers.
“We always look forward to the beginning of the month to see what Kathy has in store for the sign for the Collier Memorial!” the department wrote. “Thank you for your continued dedication...”
MIT Police Chief John DiFava said Cormier’s kind act is part of an “unbelievable” outpouring of support from the university since Collier was killed in the line of duty.
“Little gestures like Kathy’s — it’s the norm” at MIT, he said. “What she is doing is just so amazing. I just think it’s wonderful and it’s so illustrative of the way we have been treated here.”
Cormier said she plans to continue the project, which has brought her a sense of peace throughout the pandemic, as long as it’s needed. If the display is moved back outside soon, she’d still enjoy adding her personal touch.
“It brings attention to the signboard,” she said. “I try and connect that way with people, and remind them that we are all in this together and put a smile on their face.”
Happy February! Thank you to Kathy Cormier for her continuing commitment to keeping the display for the Collier Memorial colorful and inviting. We always look forward to seeing what new ideas Kathy has instore for the display each month! pic.twitter.com/ebJA0vkQfG— MIT Police (@MITPolice) February 3, 2021