February 2, 1998
GROUP PARTY UPLIFTS WIDOWS, KIDS OF COPS
BYLINE: By Nickolai Kralev
Five-year-old Stephanie J. Alcamo never met her father, Joseph. She was born 11 days after he was killed in a car accident while on duty at the New York Police Department’s 100th Precinct.
Jennifer Gunn, 10, only remembers her father, William, lying in bed in a coma. He was unconscious nearly four years after being shot in the head while chasing a suspect.
Isabelle Drach, 74, of Freeport has much clearer memories of her father, David Pettigrew, who died in 1934. She was 11 when her father, a Freeport police officer, died from a heart attack after trying to break up a fight between two men in a social club.
Nearly 100 widows and children of police officers who died in the line of duty gathered at a post-Christmas party in Jericho yesterday to remember, or to imagine, their husbands and fathers. But most of the children attending didn’t understand why their mothers, members of an organization called Survivors of the Shield, had named the celebration the “Thank God, the Holidays Are Over” party.
“The family holidays are the most difficult time to get through for us, but many kids are still too young to realize it,” said Lori Gunn of Massapequa Park, president of the Manhattan-based group and mother of Jennifer.
As president of the Survivors of the Shield, an organization of 200 widows and children of police officers who died while on duty, Gunn, together with her fellow members, tries to help every widow of a police officer in New York State.
Ten of the 35 children at the party were given gifts by Modell’s Sporting Goods in Manhattan – presents they wanted but didn’t get for Christmas. A “Santa” gave out the presents, the favorites of which turned out to be Starter jackets and Rollerblades.
For some of the children, their mothers said, dealing with their fathers’ deaths is particularly difficult at the holidays. Jennifer was only 5 when her father died on Thanksgiving in 1992, but every year on the same day she cries a lot, her mother said.
“My daughter didn’t have a normal childhood. I raised her in hospitals and nursing homes,” Gunn added. “She still has a feeling about her father.”
Although the group is headquartered in Manhattan, most members are from Long Island, Gunn said. “When a police officer dies, we go to the funeral, and then call his wife to invite her to join us,” she said.
Since its foundation in 1987, Survivors of the Shield has helped pass legislation to allow widows to keep their pensions after they remarry, said founder Kathleen Murray of Centerport. The organization also successfully pressed the state to provide full scholarships for children of the widows to attend a school in the State University of New York system.
“It was difficult when I was left alone 21 years ago, so now I want to make the lives of other widows much easier,” Murray said. “Back then, I had to pick myself up. I went to school, got my master’s and found a job.”
Murray teaches English at Suffolk Community College. One of her students next fall is very likely to be Millie Alcamo, another widow and member of Survivors of the Shield, Alcamo said. Alcamo is going back to school six years after her husband’s death. She used to live in New York City, but moved to Setauket six months ago. “Suffolk County was the place of our dreams, when my husband was alive,” she said.