Story of Survivors of the Shield

Mary Beth O’Neill, Kathleen Murray, Sue McCormack with Governor Mario Cuomo

It was 1984. The PBA Christmas Party took place at Harry’s on the lower level of the Woolworth Building, an underrated structure on Broadway, so glorious it held lobby tours. I stood at the bar and ordered a glass of chardonnay, and noticed a woman standing by the door, her coat glistening from the cold. She had that look, a sadness that drains and reshapes a lovely face into a grim mask, and that’s when I knew I was looking at the NYPDs newest widow. She was younger than me, striking, tall and blonde. She looked nervously around and made no move to walk into a crowd of women whose fate she shared.

When I walked over, a sob escaped from her, as though she had held it in until someone arrived. She took a tissue from her purse. “This is my first time, I thought maybe someone would be here to meet me,” she said, dabbing her eyes.

I knew about first times. My first time I’d been shaking so badly I thought I was going to throw-up, felt alone and in desperate need of someone to hold me up. The flash of remembrance was so acute, I felt my eyes fill up, but I put a smile on my face so she wouldn’t come unglued and looked around for Lou Matarazzo, the PBA president. The room was so mobbed with widows and policemen I couldn’t spot him. “Kathleen Murray,” I put out my hand.

She tried to smile. “Mary Beth O’Neill,” she told me. “I didn’t want to come.” She smiled a little now. “But my mother thought I should.” I’d gone through the same drill with my own mother. The other widows were mostly older, had patted me on the back and asked how I was doing, hoping I would answer “fine” so they could move on.

Though I wasn’t the welcoming committee she expected, I walked her to the bar so she could order a drink. “Thank you so much,” she said after her first sip, and I clinked her glass with mine. The Emerald Society Pipe Band waltzed by playing “Amazing Grace,” just like they did at our husbands’ funerals, the dirges taking us back to a place we never wanted to go again. The noise in the room was deafening, everyone shouting to be heard, but I stayed with Mary Beth, feeling like a big sister.

She took a sip of her chardonnay. “How long have you been widowed?” The answer was always on the tip of my tongue, weeks and months and years counted off like an anniversary you didn’t want to celebrate. “Eight years,” I said. She nodded, understanding the gulf I had bridged, one she would herself face. “I think it’s great that you’ve been able to make a new life. Right now I can’t see past today, but I hope someday I will wake up and go about my day without that terrible ache.”

I wanted to protect her from the truth: it had taken me many years before I could go about my day without missing Brian. Now I squeezed her hand, “It will get better,” I told her, and she smiled gratefully. I’d known all the police widows, had felt their sadness, and Mary Beth’s was no different, but I could see strength there, too, and knew we would be friends.

We met again a week later at the Oyster Bar under Grand Central, a place that still gave me the shivers when I thought of that bomb placed inside the locker that exploded and killed my husband, a member of the NYPD Bomb Squad. The cavernous room was permeated with a mild fish odor and noisy lunchtime conversation. “The salmon is good. I used to eat here all the time when I worked on 40th,” I said to Mary Beth, and we both ordered a plate of it and talked through the afternoon like old friends, our families, our plans for the future. It could have been a snowy day or a sunshiny afternoon, and we would never have known it in this underground restaurant. Through the window scores of people swarmed around the marble lobby with shopping bags and luggage.

“You’ll lose your pension if you get re-married,” I said after we’d shared a piece of chocolate cake.

She was quiet for a moment. “That’s not right.”

“No,” I said. “It isn’t right. Do you want to help me change the laws?”

She toyed with her knife and fork, “Damned straight.”

I told her I’d been trying for years to get someone to listen, that it was a state law, not city, not police. I’d called Albany, written letters, but no one was listening. I raised my voice to talk over the din of silverware and dishes. “If we rally other widows, get strength in numbers, we might be able to make changes.”

She nodded. “I’ll make an appointment for us to talk with my attorney, Jimmy Lysaght. His firm represents the PBA, he’ll help us out.” What she said made perfect sense. We needed someone with authority and contacts, someone who could offer legal advice, non-profit status. Mary Beth had just hit upon the perfect solution.

“And I’ll invite another new widow, Susan McCormack, to help organize,” I told her. I’d met Susan when the department had given Mets tickets to the widows. We’d both brought our boys, and mothers and sons had become fast friends. “I think she’ll have some good ideas.”

Jimmy sat on the corner of his desk, photos of him with Mickey Mantle and Ed Koch on the wall behind him. He was a big guy, Irish, fair haired and ruddy complexioned. He thought starting a widows group was a great idea, said he could help us with incorporation and not-for-profit documents and use his conference room as our meeting place. “And when you’re ready,” he told us. “I’ll get you a meeting with the governor, so you can plead your case.”

“Survivors,” Susan suggested when we settled into our new space. We’d toyed with names.

“Something to do with police or shield,” I said, attempting to draw a copy of a police shield.

Mary Beth looked at my poor drawing. “Survivors of the Shield,” she said. “SOS.”

We all laughed, the excitement building. We had a name, a place to meet, an attorney to help us with incorporation and not-for-profit documents, and a commitment that Jimmy would pave the way for a meeting with the governor of the State of New York. During the next six years we met in Jimmy’s office to organize and strategize.

It was now 1990 and as I rode the elevator up to Governor Mario Cuomo’s office, I felt a sense of great pride. The law that Susan and Mary Beth and I had worked so hard for was finally going to be signed in the presence of senators and countless media.

On the 58th floor jackhammers and car horns in the financial district below were silenced, and as the three of us stood at the window we could see a tugboat streaming along the Hudson toward the Statue of Liberty. We’d met with the Governor once before on a freezing cold day in February when the sky was a brilliant blue and the waves held white caps. Sitting across from him, we’d given him our wish list, the things that would improve our lives and those of our children: the right to remarry without losing our pensions, scholarships for ourselves and our offspring, grief counseling training so we could console a new widow, and his suggestions, two monuments for fallen police and fire officers, one in Battery Park City, and one in Albany, and special license plates that would read Survivors of the Shield.

A glint of sun had caught the governor’s eyeglasses that winter day as he put down the pen he’d been using to make notes. “Let me talk to my senators,” he’d said. “Garner support in Albany.”

Celebrating with a glass of wine afterwards, Mary Beth had told us, “Sometimes dreams do come true.” But the year following had been hard, trips to Albany had been cancelled because senators weren’t available, there had been delays over appropriating funds and sometimes it looked like it was never going to happen. Except now it was really happening. The view this time was greener in the spring, and the conference room smelled of rich coffee and baked goods. I watched the wind catch the sail of a cutter as it headed up the East River.

All the major networks filmed Governor Mario Cuomo signing the COPS Agenda, changing the path of those unfortunate enough to lose their spouses in the line of duty. COPS, he named it, Care Of Police Survivors. “The bill includes every New York State police and fire department,” the governor told the press, “And it has all come about as a result of the hard work of Kathleen Murray, Susan McCormack, and Mary Beth O’Neill.”

By Kathleen Murray

Survivors of the Shield • Church Street Station • PO Box 436 • New York • NY • 10008-0436