It seems almost hard to remember. A mere four months -- only weeks, really -- after the World Trade Center towers collapsed, a disparate group of 9/11 families still reeling from the unthinkable loss of their loved ones were sent reeling further by accusations of being a greedy bunch of moneygrubbers with their eyes on the big dollar signs promised by Congress' Victim Compensation Fund.
The 9/11 families needed a voice, and Beverly Eckert, whose husband, Sean Rooney, died in the south tower while on the phone with her, found the courage, in his honor, to try to speak on their behalf. Reluctantly, upon request, she took up her pen, and on Jan. 28, 2002, her cogent, clear Op-Ed appeared in the Daily News.
In her grief, Eckert, who tragically died last Thursday in the plane crash near Buffalo, had "done the right thing." Speaking with uncanny intelligence in one voice for the incongruent mix of individuals who had been widely dismissed as having few rights, much less any real power, in those days, she defended the integrity and fortified the stance of the gathering force that was the 9/11 families.
When we sum up a life spent "doing the right thing," which we are forced to do now much too soon, what emerges strong and clear with Beverly Eckert is, in fact, power. We see the power of one, the power of many, the power of words, of democracy and compassion - and we see the power of love, for she did it all for Sean.
Consider a key passage from that first Op-Ed, "9/11 Families Want Fairness, Not Riches," Jan. 28, 2002:
...be very sure of this: No matter what the award, any victim's family would gladly trade places with those members of the public who have been so critical. We would give anything to be where they are, instead of where we are. If only we could.
That first stab at being a voice for the 9/11 community was to be one of three pieces she wrote for the Daily News at significant and controversial times in our post-9/11 history, even as she became an often quoted "9/11 widow."
Her second Daily News Op-Ed ran six months later, on July 24, after the first round of designs for Ground Zero had been publicly decried. The headline was: "Do the Memorial First at Ground Zero":
"To Gov. Pataki and New Jersey's Gov. Jim McGreevey, who oversee the PA, I say this: Listen... Slow the process and do it right. We have time."
"Let an international design competition for the memorial begin Sept. 11. By Jan. 1, we'd have the proposals, and then planning for the rest of the acreage could begin."
Six months later, on Jan. 30, 2003, she continued the fight when yet another round of designs were on display at the Winter Garden:
The development officials have it backward: 1) Select a design that will likely never be built. 2) Use that design to impose limits on the memorial. 3) Wedge the memorial into that space.
There needs to be an honest acknowledgment that, in contrast to the fanciful structures displayed at the Winter Garden, the memorial will be built, and the millions of visitors it will draw will generate an immediate and sustainable economic revitalization of lower Manhattan. . . .
I pity the architects who undertook an assignment they had to know in their hearts was backward. And I pity the public, which has been duped by computer simulations into thinking that by casting votes for any of these designs, they are helping to make the city a better post-9/11 place to live and work.
Recent history has born out the prescience of these words, with the international contest for a 9/11 memorial and museum finally being held and a design chosen. But Eckert's impact reached far beyond Ground Zero, becoming more clear as her death is marked and her life is recalled. With a new American President, whom she had just met days ago, calling her an inspiration, and a new secretary of state acknowledging her crucial contributions to the formation of the 9/11 commission and the implementation of its recommendations; with tributes from neighbors, politicians, statesmen, friends and fellow advocates listing her accomplishments and dedication, she is being written into the history that she helped shape.
All Eckert's words, and her life's work, born of grief and dignity, should embolden us. Her death brings her legacy to light at another difficult time for our country, a time when we need to know that great difficulty can be transformed into great power -- the power of one. In honor of Beverly Eckert, stand up and be a voice for those who need to be heard.
She used her time here well, and sadly, it is over. But now, to quote from her second Op-Ed, "We have time."
This post originally appeared in the New York Daily News.