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    Bella English

    A reunion party, 30 years after the worst time of her life

    Sarah Pryor was 9 years old when she disappeared on Oct. 9, 1985, during a walk near her Wayland home.
    Sarah Pryor was 9 years old when she disappeared on Oct. 9, 1985, during a walk near her Wayland home.

    Barbara Pryor decided to get some old friends together recently. So she came up from Pittsburgh, booked a reception room at Sandy Burr Country Club in Wayland, and called the evening, “Sarah’s Song Sings On.”

    Barbara wanted to do something to remember the 30th anniversary of the worst time of her life, or, rather, the people who helped her through it. “You are all so special to me,” Barbara told the 50 or so people gathered. “This is a reunion, a thank-you party.”

    There was a memory board with stories and pictures of her daughter, Sarah, and the girl’s homemade Mother’s Day card. There was a photo of WBZ-TV reporter Charlie Austin singing at Sarah’s funeral. A picture of Barbara cutting the ribbon on Sarah’s Place, a room where victims and their families can wait before appearances at Middlesex Superior Court.

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    And there was a headline: “Police Haven’t Forgotten Sarah.”

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    Sarah Pryor was 9 years old when she disappeared on Oct. 9, 1985, after she went for a walk on a sunny afternoon near her Wayland home. The family had moved from Pittsburgh six weeks earlier.

    Sarah was never seen again, but the photo of the blonde girl with a gap-toothed grin remains rooted in many minds. The case of Sarah Pryor captured the imagination of not just Greater Boston, but the entire country.

    Those were the days before Amber Alerts, when kids could leave home in the morning and play until dark. Steve Williams was a young police officer when he picked up the phone to hear Andrew Pryor’s frantic voice that October night.

    Williams is 65 now, a retired Wayland detective, and he was there for the recent anniversary event. “Sarah Pryor’s disappearance changed the rules for kids playing,” Williams said. “They had the full run of the playground before. After, parents throughout the country insisted on knowing where their children were.”

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    Why this particular case? “Because Barbara and Andrew were being interviewed constantly on TV, and they were the perfect couple, the perfect parents. And if it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone.”

    In 1987, an American journalist visiting Germany noticed some graffiti on the western side of the Berlin Wall: “Sarah Pryor, wherever you are, we love you. Age 9. Missing October 9, 1985. Whalen, (sic) MA. U.S.A. God love you.” It was painted up 10 feet, out of reach of other graffiti or vandalism. Someone had to get a ladder to do it, and it prompted a column by Bob Greene in the Chicago Tribune.

    In 1998, when a few bones were finally found 2 miles from her home, 1,000 people showed up at Sarah’s funeral. She was buried on her 22d birthday. Though no arrest was ever made, John R. Whirty, who was in the area at the time, remains the chief suspect. He also remains in prison, where he is serving a life sentence for violating parole on a Texas murder conviction. Every few years, the Pryor family must speak up to oppose his release on parole.

    Sarah vanished just as I was starting to work at The Boston Globe. A year later, I covered a talk Barbara gave to law enforcement personnel, providing a mother’s perspective on an unspeakable ordeal.

    By then, I had my own baby girl, and over the years I kept in touch with Barbara. In 2000, when she decided to leave Wayland and return to Pittsburgh, I wrote about the move. The headline was “The long road back: 15 years after her daughter sarah’s death, Barbara Pryor is ready to move on.”

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    Barbara Pryor might have moved away, but, of course, those who have lost a child can never move on. As she said the other night: “I am Sarah’s voice. I am speaking for my little girl, who would be 39 years old now.”

    Sarah Pryor was 9 years old when she disappeared on Oct. 9, 1985, after she went for a walk on a sunny afternoon near her Wayland home. The family had moved from Pittsburgh six weeks earlier. Sarah was never seen again, but the photo of the blonde girl with a gap-toothed grin remains rooted in many minds.

    As often happens when a child is lost, Barbara and Andrew Pryor divorced, but remained friends. Last year, he died of injuries sustained in a car crash. At the country club, Barbara offered a moment of silence for him. She turns 75 this month and lives half a block from son Byron, his wife, and their four boys. Daughter Meg works in the arts in New York.

    At the Wayland event, Barbara sat at the front of the room with a microphone and talked about those who helped her along the way: her sister Carroll, who lives in Concord; police; reporters; those at Wayland High who run the Sarah Elizabeth Pryor Memorial Scholarship; Barbara’s former co-workers at TJX; and the Wayland faith community.

    Barbara singled out one of Sarah’s classmates, now 39, and Newton sculptor Nancy Schon, who years ago created a statue for a public space in Wayland: an empty sled and a dog. Sarah loved to sled with her border collie Katie.

    Over the years, Barbara has spoken out on children’s issues, done missionary work, and volunteered at the women’s prison in Framingham. While in Massachusetts, she served as victim services coordinator in the state Office for Victim Assistance. She has displayed courage and selflessness in the wake of unimaginable grief.

    If Barbara was there to honor all of us, we were there to honor her. At the evening’s outset, radio personality Candy O’Terry sang “Amazing Grace” to her. It was the perfect introduction to a woman, and an evening, full of grace.

    Bella English writes from Milton. She can be reached at english@globe.com.