Molly McNeil Dowd (submitted photo)
Molly McNeil Dowd (submitted photo)
BRATTLEBORO -- Family and friends are mourning the death of a woman who was described as "a vital member of the community" with a "megawatt smile."

Molly McNeil Dowd, 24, died while swimming in the Deerfield River in Conway, Mass., on Sunday, July 6. She was a 2007 graduate of Brattleboro Union High School and lived in a yurt on Bonnyvale Road in Brattleboro. She was the coordinator of the garden at Green Street School and assistant coordinator of the garden at Holton Home, on Western Avenue.

"The most special thing about Molly wasn't the work she did, it was that she gave so freely of herself to everyone, her kindness and her listening ear," said Chelsea Wiehl, Molly's sister. "She really cared for people.

Molly McNeil Dowd (submitted photo)
Molly McNeil Dowd (submitted photo)
"

Molly's mother, Katherine Dowd, said her daughter was creative, full of life and intensely smart.

"She had an exuberance, a zest for life, and always cared about people and the earth since she was a little girl," said Katherine. "She was grateful for birdsong, fireflies and friends. She lived in the moment."

According to the Northwestern District Attorney's Office in Northampton, Mass., Molly Dowd was swimming in the Deerfield River with friends when she attempted to cross the river below Dam No. 2 in Conway. Witnesses said Dowd was caught in a whirlpool created by heavy rains and was unable to swim out. On Tuesday, kayakers discovered her body in the river near the Deerfield Academy.


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"We are just devastated," said Wiehl, adding her sister's friends have helped the family cope with their loss. "So many people have said how much she touched their lives. It's incredible and a testament to her spirit of who she was."

On Wednesday, a man Wiehl did not know before her sister's death went to Molly's home garden on Bonnyvale Road to weed it. When Wiehl asked him why, she was told that Molly had weeded his garden one day during his wife's recent pregnancy.

"She had all of these wonderful little relationships. She treated everyone like they were really important," said Wiehl.

Lynn Leighton, fourth-grade teacher at Green Street School, said before the school year begins, she will have to figure out a way to break the news to the students that worked with Molly.

"She was unbelievably fantastic with the students," said Leighton. "She loved every single child and honored each of them for their own individual strengths. She was so enthusiastic and so gentle with them. She made learning so much fun. She radiated sunshine, kindness and happiness. She was a breath of fresh air."

Cindy Jerome, Holton Home's executive director, said Molly had worked for the past few years as Abi Healey's assistant in the facility's garden.

"Last week she was putting in a new garden long after sunset and in the rain, so every resident would have something beautiful outside their window," said Jerome. "Molly was so strong. She planted light and joy for us and we will miss her very much."

Molly was also a board member of the Rich Earth Institute in Brattleboro, which is researching the use of human urine as fertilizer.

"Molly joined us as a board fellow last fall with the 'Get on Board' program through Marlboro College," said Kim Nace and Abe Noe-Hays, founders of Rich Earth. "She came for an orientation lunch with another board fellow and Pippy, her dog. It was easy to feel Molly's confidence, energy and commitment. She jumped in to learn and to help."

When the program was over, Molly was invited to become a member of Rich Earth's board.

"She volunteered at every turn, getting ready for events like the Strolling of the Heifers, wielding a screwgun at the farm to build a greenhouse, and showing up at meetings with great ideas, well articulated," said Nace and Noe-Hays. "Molly's spark was very special. Her optimism and thoughtfulness will be remembered and we miss her very much."

Molly's yurt was on the property of Meg Kluge, who is a neighbor to Molly's parents.

Kluge said Molly was around her horses from a young age and saved up money to buy her own horse, which she stabled with the Kluges.

"Molly was one of the most alive people I know. She was open to the world, to other people, to new ideas and adventures. She was one of those special people that lights up the world. She was one of those people who is so joyful that they take joy with them wherever they go and spread it around."

"She had it figured out, what she wanted in life, and she was going for it," said Nace.

Wiehl, 29, said her sister was a joy to be around.

"She was always fun," she said, admitting she was unlike her only sister in that she was more cautious about life. "Without her I would have had much less fun growing up."

But, said Wiehl, what happened on July 6 was just an accident.

"She and some friends were out swimming on a beautiful day. They were just having fun. Nobody was being reckless."

Katherine Dowd said 80 men and women from 11 communities and agencies helped in the search for her daughter.

"Every single one of them had the utmost of compassion for her and for us. They were so honorable."

The Massachusetts State Police was assisted by the Shelburne, Mass., Police Department, the Conway police and fire departments and ambulance service, the Northfield Dive team, Turners Falls Rescue, Greenfield Rescue, police from the railroad and Transcanada.

Molly worked at Brown & Roberts Hardware on Main Street in Brattleboro during high school, said Katherine Dowd.

"She could sell you a chainsaw or grow organic lettuce. She could weed your garden or take care of your child."

Leighton said she hopes to plan something very special in memory of Molly when the school year begins.

"Perhaps we'll plant a tree or start a butterfly garden."

Molly McNeil Dowd was born on Sept. 7, 1989, to Katherine and Ernest Dowd.

Plans to commemorate Molly Dowd's life are still being worked out, but Wiehl said people can do one thing to help remember her until then.

"Give freely of your kindness and love for one another."

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.