When President Bush addressed the nation Thursday and singled out police officer George Howard as a symbol of sacrifice and commitment, he spoke of Howard's heroic death in the effort to save lives from the World Trade Center.
But for many more reasons that Americans did not hear, the veteran police officer and firefighter is an uncommonly fitting representative of the hundreds of fellow rescue workers who never returned home Sept. 11.
Like others, the Port Authority officer was off-duty that morning but raced to the attack from Long Island, and died answering a call far from home.
Like others, the decorated veteran hardly could have envisioned the collapse of the twin towers, which claimed his life just as he was racing toward the buildings to help.
And like others, Howard leaves behind a family, including two sons, ages 13 and 19, who unabashedly idolized him.
"If he knew he would become a hero, or a symbol or anything, he would have hated it," said 19-year-old Christopher, who inherited his father's towering height, as well as a calling to save lives.
"This only makes me want to be a police officer even more. . . . He would have wanted me to do it--and to be even better than he was," Christopher said Friday, seated in his grandmother's living room now cluttered with stacks of citations, photos and commendations that his father never allowed anyone to talk about.
Howard, 44, a volunteer Hicksville firefighter and athletic coach, was one of 37 Port Authority police officers who died or are missing after the terrorist attack that destroyed the World Trade Center. The total number of emergency workers missing or dead is estimated at 400.
His story gained the attention of the president last week at a meeting of grieving families, when the officer's mother, 77-year-old Arlene Howard, presented Bush with the gift of her son's police shield.
"He said, `It would be an honor,'" Arlene recalled of her emotional meeting with the president. "But I had no idea he was going to do what he did."
Speaking before a joint session of Congress and a national television audience, Bush held Howard's shield aloft, saying, "It is my reminder of lives that ended and a task that does not end."
While accolades always made George Howard squirm, he was no stranger to them.
As a 16-year member of the Port Authority's Emergency Services Unit, which oversees emergency operations at New York area airports, Howard was credited with revamping its rescue outfit and training countless colleagues.
In 1993, Howard responded on his day off to the bomb blast at the World Trade Center. He received a medal of valor for his heroics, which included rescuing dozens of school children stuck in an elevator.
"All he told us was to come to the Javits [convention] center at a certain time," his mother recalled of the day he was awarded the commendation. "We had no idea he was getting a medal until we got there."
`Its my job'
In 1998, Howard made headlines again, this time for delivering a baby aboard an airplane on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy Airport, where he was stationed at the time of his death.
"To him, saving lives was as natural as life. He would just say, `It's my job,'" said his mother, who served as a naval clerk during World War II.
George Howard came from a family committed to law enforcement and the military. One brother, Patrick, is a New York police officer; another brother, Robert, has made a career in the Navy; brother Timothy and sister Geri-Anne both served in the Air Force.
Howard grew up in Hicksville, and volunteered as a firefighter at age 17. He worked for several years as a firefighter in Washington before joining the Port Authority police.
Stationed at LaGuardia and, later, Kennedy Airports, Howard assisted in rescue and recovery operations for TWA Flight 800 and other major airline crashes in the region.
For many years, Howard also taught at the Nassau County Fire Service Academy, where his reputation grew as an innovator in rescue tactics.
"I am privileged to have known George, to have worked with George, and, most of all, really, to have walked in George's shadow," said Hicksville fire Chief William Thunell, a friend for 30 years. "He was everything you could want to be: a firefighter, a police officer, and a great father."
In the living room of Arlene Howard's one-story yellow house, 13-year-old Robert flipped proudly through a book of photographs capturing years of annual road trips.
A son reflects
"Anything he could do, he would teach us how to do," said Robert, both tall and articulate for his age.
Unlike the rest of his family, Robert is not interested in law enforcement. He wants to be an author, he says. Howard was a writer too, who was published in rescue trade magazines and government manuals. Son Christopher, keeps a stack of some of them, which he plans to use when he begins his own police career.
On a visit to the Hicksville fire department Friday, Christopher was greeted by long handshakes. The "son of George Howard" was reserved as he chatted with men who knew his father for decades.
"So when are we going to see you down here?" asked Thunell, the chief.
"I'll be here in January, you can count it," he said.Copyright © 2015, CT Now