Up on the fourth floor of the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home on Madison Avenue, there were at least 300 stories standing in a long line that had formed by 2:30 on Monday, a soft, summer day in Manhattan. The stories were told mostly by men who worked for, with or alongside a magnificent and honorable policeman named John Timoney who was claimed by cancer at the age of 68 a few days earlier and now lay in wake as hundreds lined the sidewalk outside waiting patiently to pay their respects.
John Timoney was a sentinel of the city. And his life, his accomplishments and his very demeanor stand as a vivid antidote to the toxic behavior of another man from New York City who manages to incite a fear of the future by constantly hinting or even claiming that America is being stolen by some who do not belong here or rigged by some others in political power.
Timoney rose to the very top of the New York City Police Department in the 1990s as First Deputy Commissioner and Chief of Department under Bill Bratton. He was then Commissioner in Philadelphia and Chief in Miami and at every single stop he changed policing for the better of both the cops and the civilians who sought their services.
But his story is far bigger than the sidewalks he strolled as a patrolman or the cities and the people he swore to protect and never, not ever, let down. It began in spring 1961 when John Timoney, 13 years old, left Dublin, Ireland, with his family and landed in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.
On the 4th of September that year a young patrolman, Francis Xavier Walsh, was shot dead trying to stop a robbery in a Chinese grocery store on 8th Avenue in Harlem. Walsh and his family lived on West 171th Street and his funeral Mass was held on Sept. 8 up the block from where John Timoney and his new best friend in America, Tommy Hyland, lived.
Both boys sat on a stoop across from the church, watching intently, mesmerized by the blue line of mourners, by the degree of dedication to the dead police officer, by the lines of mourners and the devotion to ceremony and remembrance.
“I remember John turning to me and saying, “We should do that when we grow up. We should be cops,” Tommy Hyland, a retired NYPD detective, was saying Tuesday afternoon shortly after John Timoney was buried.
“Can you imagine what he would have thought about today?” John Gallagher had been saying earlier Tuesday morning. “A kid arrives from Ireland, a stranger to our shores, and now Fifth Avenue is shut down for his funeral. What a country. What a man.”
Gallagher is a former New York City policeman. He followed Timoney to Philadelphia as his counsel and to Miami too and he was speaking now on the sidewalk outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a symbol of faith built by the hands and hearts of immigrants.
Now it was nearly 10 a.m. and the sounds of 20 motorcycles coming slowly down the avenue pierced the mid-morning air. The bike cops were followed by a Chrysler hearse carrying a flag-draped casket, an American flag with green stripes and white stars.
The NYPD Emerald Society Pipes and Drums band followed the hearse playing a dirge. Then the black cars filled with family pulled to the curb and Msgr. Robert Ritchie, Rector of St. Patrick’s, came down the steps to greet them and lead them through the open doors of the church.
Msgr. Ritchie came from the Bronx and, like Timoney, went to Cardinal Hayes High School there. Like Timoney, Ritchie became fluent in Spanish. And the two of them, the priest and the policeman, had an acute understanding of what it’s like to be poor or newly arrived in a land where you are surrounded by glamour and wealth and celebrity. Two men together, saving souls and lives.
The Catholic funeral Mass is a splendid, holy spectacle and St. Patrick’s Cathedral is famous throughout the world. The service took place on a morning when the heat and humidity surrendered to a fine breeze and a cloudless August sky and the spectators stood on the sidewalk comfortably observing the scene just a few blocks south of Trump Tower.
The words and music of the Communion hymn, “Be Not Afraid,” floated through the church and drifted through the doors on to the avenue. The remembrances of John Timoney from Bill Bratton, Ed Rendell, Tom Wolfe, Sean and Christine Timoney and Johnnie Miller of the NYPD were true and telling and to the point: This was the funeral of a great and good man who had spent a life worthy of praise and imitation.
Now the Mass had ended. The air of incense surrounded the casket and floated throughout the cathedral. The big crowd filed to the street. The family followed. The church doors remained open wide. The crowds on the sidewalks stood, hushed. The pallbearers came down the middle aisle, down the steps, marched to the back of the Chrysler hearse and gently placed the casket down.
Two buglers played “America the Beautiful.” The flag was folded and presented to Timoney’s wife, Noreen. Six NYPD helicopters flew in slow formation in the sky above Fifth Avenue. Hundreds of white-gloved police officers snapped to attention and saluted.
Then, this man of the city, this man of America, this boy who arrived from Ireland to grab and hold on to everything the land stands for and still symbolizes around a world aflame with hostilities, was taken away to be buried.
His name was John Timoney, honorable policeman, American and someone who left a lasting impression of all that is good about the job he loved and the land he served.