Two Fathers, Two Sons


Anne M. Buckley, the retired editor in chief of Catholic New York, died April 23. In tribute to her, we are reprinting a number of her Editor's Report columns.

When Detective Steven McDonald, New York's Irish-American hero cop, moved up the aisle of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral in his wheelchair carrying the gifts for the Eucharist at the Memorial Mass for John F. Kennedy Jr., it was a moment of poignancy that rivaled all the poignant words.

The police officer who lost part of his life in the line of duty more than 12 years ago appeared pensive as he approached the altar, with his 12-year-old son, Conor, beside him. I asked him later what his thoughts had been.

He remembered meeting John F. Kennedy Jr. twice. The first time was before McDonald was shot in Central Park, the injury that paralyzed him from the neck down. On a spring morning he was on foot patrol at Literary Walk in the park, and people were passing the statues of poets on their way to work, hardly noticing the man there for their safety, until a handsome young man on a bike came along. Young John Kennedy waved and said, "Hello, Officer." And the two good-looking young Irish-Americans smiled at each other.

Their next meeting was in Harlem during David Dinkins' campaign for mayor of New York in 1989. By then, Police Officer McDonald was in the wheelchair, and they talked. "A very nice guy," said McDonald, who wrote to Kennedy "to thank him for spending time with me." Kennedy wrote back, he said, "thanking me for what I had sacrificed."

"On the two occasions I had to meet and speak with him, he made me feel good about myself--as a police officer and as a disabled person," McDonald told me.

He wanted to be at the Memorial Mass for that reason. But there were many others.

Steven McDonald had never been in St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, where his Irish immigrant ancestors worshiped. He was glad to learn it would be accessible to his wheelchair. The heavily Irish-American crowd in the church gave him a standing ovation when he arrived with his son, who was born after the shooting in Central Park.

Conor was on his right as he moved up the aisle at the offertory. On his left was his wife Patti Ann's mother, Sheila Norris, who's from Boston, where her father, an Irish immigrant named Patrick Kennedy, worked on John F. Kennedy's first campaign for Congress. A family treasure is the letter of appreciation he received from the future president after that first victory. Last March McDonald read the letter at the dinner in Holyoke, Mass., at which he received the John F. Kennedy National Award from the city's St. Patrick's Committee.

The award recognizes the contributions of Irish-Americans to this country. McDonald is very proud of "what we, as a people, have contributed, especially our faith," he said.

He was 7 when President Kennedy was assassinated, which makes him about four years older than John Jr. He remembers that tragedy vividly. He grew up grateful to JFK and all the Kennedys for what they have given, how well they have represented Irish-Americans, he said. The contributions John Jr. made to society, especially to people in need, were done so quietly that they are only beginning to come out. They will continue, he predicted.

There was one more thing on his mind as he performed his unexpected role at the Memorial Mass.

"I thought about the president and young John and the short time they had together," he said. "And there were Conor and I, a father and son." He said he resolved "to do a better job with the time Conor and I have together." He didn't mention that Conor was not yet born when a bullet nearly ended his father's life, how close they'd come to never knowing each other.

What he said was, "That was a moment when Conor and I shared in the lives of two great men."


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