This little kid, just 7 years old and wearing his father’s way-too-large police hat, handed me a badge with his dad’s picture on it and asked me to wear it on the television news that night. After clearing my throat, I told him no problem.
This was the summer after the murders at the World Trade Center, and the boy was John Leahy, youngest of three sons of Officer James Leahy, one of the 23 NYPD cops killed there. Their names had been inscribed on the police memorial wall at the Empire State Plaza, and all the families came to Albany for the ceremony, among them Marcela Leahy and her boy from Staten Island. They had just attended Mass at historic St. Mary’s Church downtown, and I performed my little interview with the Leahys when this brightly scrubbed kid hands me the badge.
“He refuses to even talk about it now,” Marcela told me the other night of her now-16-year-old son and the death of his father. “John will not be attending the ceremony [for the families at the new ground zero memorial] on Sunday.”
If Marcela had her way, she would not go, either. She attended the first few years, but after that the family would take a radio to the cemetery where James is buried and gather around his grave as they listened to the names of the victims being read on the radio. His widow is torn between her desire to have her husband remembered for the hero he was and her desire to grieve in private.
“People lose loved ones all the time, but they don’t have it rehashed in their faces every single day of every single year,” she said. “Every time I hear the words ‘ground zero’ on the radio or see the images of the buildings on TV, I relive it again and again.”
But Mrs. Leahy will go to the World Trade Center site because her middle son, 24-year-old Danny, will be reciting some of the names, including his dad’s, and she wants to be there for Danny. Her mother-in-law, Jeannette, will go to Precinct 6 in Greenwich Village, where James served all of his nine years on the job, and once again she will hear her son’s name pronounced during roll call and then the heart-rending silence in place of the one-word reply: “Present.”
“But I’m so proud of James, and I want people to know that,” says Marcela. “He did not have to go into that building [the North Tower]. His partner refused to go, and he kept telling James not to go.” Marcela got to hear the emergency tapes later, and you can hear 38-year-old Officer Leahy assuring his partner in a very calm voice that he’s got to help the firefighters carry the oxygen tanks up the staircase and not to worry, he would be back out safely. There was that same calm when he left a message on the answering machine at home at 9:35 a.m., both towers struck by hijacked jetliners by that time.
“He was at peace,” she says, “I know that sounds strange with everything that was going on, but he was at peace. I suppose that we were luckier than most; I got James back and we were able to have a funeral service, and I guess there’s some sort of closure in all of that.”
A total of 1,122 victims never were recovered.
Jim Leahy, 28, the oldest of the boys, told me from Staten Island: “If my dad had it all to do all over, he would go right into that building again. That’s who he was, a really selfless guy.”
Jim is a nurse-supervisor and a Binghamton University graduate who had wanted to wear NYPD blue, but his mother hid the papers.
“He took the exam and scored 100 on the test, but I could not bear to have him be a police officer,” says Marcela, “so I hid all the mail while he was away at school in Binghamton. He’s doing just great where he is right now.”
All three of the Leahy boys had accompanied their dad on a trip to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, just one month before 9/11 to see their father’s favorite player of all time, Lynn Swann, get inducted. “My dad was a diehard Steelers fan, and we’re still huge fans,” Jim told me. “I attend at least one Steelers game each year, and of course, I’m thinking about him just about every minute.”
I kept that badge with Officer Leahy’s picture in my top-right desk drawer, and for nine years, I would see his face each weekday morning as I started work.
And on Sunday, I will be thinking about that little kid with the cop’s cap outside St. Mary’s and all of those missing moments: 10 birthdays and 10 Christmases times three sons; 10 wedding anniversaries, and all those Father’s Days and all of those ordinary times when a son just wants to have some words with his dad.