NEW YORK — New York Police Detective Steven McDonald may never have known the impact he made on others, but he wasn’t great at getting attention anyway.
“My dad was the most humble person, it was never about him,” said his son, Conor McDonald.
Last month, thousands of mourners crowded New York streets and overpasses as McDonald’s body traveled from his home on Long Island to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
His funeral was officiated by Cardinal Timothy Dolan and attended by hundreds of members of the NYPD and New York City government.
His wife, Patti Ann McDonald, said, “Knowing what he went through 30 years after he was injured. (The funeral) was beautiful. The city, the outpouring of support, I was speechless.”
Stunning act of forgiveness
Three decades ago, Steven McDonald was a new cop with the NYPD.
He was on patrol in Central Park when he questioned a group of teens. One of them, a 15-year-old boy, shot McDonald three times. A bullet pierced McDonald’s spine and he was paralyzed from the neck down. Doctors gave him five years to live.
McDonald remained hospitalized for months, while Patti Ann gave birth to Conor.
On the day of Conor’s baptism, McDonald publicly forgave his attacker, charting a new course for his life.
“I wanna forgive the kid that shot me,” he said.
McDonald’s act of forgiveness came less than a year after the shooting.
“When he decided to forgive, some people didn’t agree with him,” recalled Patti Ann. “But, in order for him to move forward, to let go what was inside, he needed to.”
McDonald brought his message of forgiveness, faith and love to inner-city schools and church groups. He also traveled around the world to war-torn communities in places like Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Israel.
“He spoke with President Reagan, met with Pope John Paul II and Nelson Mandela, and — in 2015 — saw Pope Francis in Central Park, not far from where his life changed forever,” said NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill at the funeral.
The family said McDonald would hand out cards with a poem titled, “You are special” to fellow police officers, reminding them to protect and serve, and to always return home safely.
“We still get notes with pictures of those original cards from people who were touched by my father,” said Conor, “I would come home and say, ‘Dad, you don’t know how important you are’ and he would say, ‘I’m just doing my thing.'”
In the McDonald home, there is a wall filled with pictures of some of McDonald’s memories and travels.
One, in particular, is Conor’s favorite.
It’s shows Patti Ann holding a baby Conor up to his father, their foreheads touching.
“My dad and I would rub our heads together, because we couldn’t hug,” Conor said. “That’s how we’d show affection toward each other. We’d do that until the day he died.”
A family united by service
In 2010, like his father, Conor joined the NYPD. He recently was promoted to the rank of sergeant.
It was the bond between Conor and his father that Patti Ann said was Steven’s greatest accomplishment.
The two McDonald men could often be found rink-side at Madison Square Garden, both loyal fans of hockey’s New York Rangers.
“He and I weren’t afforded the opportunity to play catch, throw a ball, or pass the puck around. We were just rink-side; it was the greatest experience,” Conor remembered. “When the Rangers won, my dad could walk again.”
In the 1987-1988 season, the New York Rangers established the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award in his honor.
And on the evening of McDonald’s funeral, the New York Rangers again honored Steven for his loyalty and life.
Rangers fans participated in a standing ovation, while Conor and Patti Ann dropped the puck for the team’s game.
A standing cheer for a man who — despite his appearance — had no limitations. He was a father, husband and hero, who devoted his life to others, up until his last breath.
“I truly believe he is in a better place,” Patti Ann said. “He’s not suffering or in pain. He’s walking and he’s free.”