For the past 15 years, the William E. Simon Foundation, in conjunction with the Manhattan Institute, has recognized outstanding members of American civil society—social entrepreneurs—whose work has helped to inspire and uplift. Winners of the $100,000 prize have included Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who established the Special Olympics, David Levin, a founder of the KIPP charter school network, Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, Daniel Biederman, of New York’s Bryant Park Corporation and pioneer in urban revitalization, and George McDonald, founder of the Doe Fund, the model program for helping the homeless through work.
The life of the late New York Police Department detective Steven McDonald, recognized posthumously as the 2017 Simon Prize winner, reminds us that, for the person with vision and strength, one’s example can be as powerful as an entire organization. Below, I look back on his life—and the reasons for his recognition.
New York police detective Steven McDonald’s January calendar was quickly filling up. There were two high school speeches scheduled on the 12th alone, as well as a dinner speech for the Long Island chapter of the Catholic business leaders group Legatus, even a community parade appearance. His promised to be the sort of schedule which, as usual, would tire the healthiest 59-year-old—let alone a quadriplegic who’d been confined to a wheelchair for 30 years, breathing only with the help of a respirator, speaking with difficulty. Nonetheless, his was a nearly non-stop schedule of speaking appearances at high schools, prayer groups, churches and synagogues, ethnic feast days, even county fairs. And there were the many unheralded private visits to police precincts throughout New York’s five boroughs, to counsel and, at times, console his fellow cops,
This time, though, he would not be able to make his scheduled appearances. A heart attack did what a 15-year-old gunman’s bullet had not done those three decades previous, in Central Park: stilled Steven McDonald’s voice, a voice that had inspired.
“People would see him on the street and, of course, they’d recognize him,” recalls a colleague who was McDonald’s driver but, technically, his assigned partner—literally, because McDonald remained an active duty NYPD detective, his limitations notwithstanding. “They’d come up to him and say, ‘you changed my life.’ Or, ‘I remember when you spoke at my school. You taught me not to hate’.” Many would take from their purses or wallets frayed copies of the cards he signed for so many—the one with the NYPD shield on the front and his own homily on the other side. “Please realize the God of heaven made you for a special purpose. The God of light and love has a job for you to do that nobody else can do as well as you can.”
Howard Husock is the Vice President of Research and Publications at the Manhattan Institute. From 1987 through 2006, he was director of case studies in public policy and management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.