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 had every reason to be bitter, when a bullet fired from a teenager's gun in Central Park left him paralyzed. Instead, he embarked on a lifelong mission of mercy and forgiveness.
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.”
McDonald, of course, had thought that job would, for him, be that of a police officer, following in the footsteps of his own father, an NYPD sergeant. His calling, he realized—after a battle with the demons of despair—would be otherwise: a mission of forgiveness, a mission borne of his understanding that the symbolic power of his own persona—a fallen police officer—could help spread a gospel of healing and forgiving.
It’s a mission that began tragically, on July 12, 1986, when McDonald, was on a routine patrol in Central Park, responding to reports of bicycle thefts in the northern end of the park. He would later recall, in Johann Christoph Arnold’s book “Why Forgive”, what happened, after he identified himself and his partner as police officers.
“While questioning them, I noticed a bulge in the pant leg of the youngest boy. . .I bent down to examine it. As I did. . .the taller of the three was pointing a gun at my head. Before I knew what was happening, there was a deafening explosion, the muzzle flashed, and the bullet struck me above my right eye . . .I fell backward and the boy shot me a second time, hitting me in the throat. Then, as I lay on the ground, he stood over me and shot me a third time.”
The horror of the crime—committed by a 15-year-old—was such that President Reagan was among those who called the hospitalized McDonald—who would remain in hospitals for 18 months, even as his wife Patty gave birth to their son Conor.
All of which contributed to the drama and significance of his public statement made at baptism of his son—held at Bellevue Hospital. Read by his wife, McDonald said of the teenager who’d shot him, . “I forgive him,” he said, “and hope that he can find peace and purpose in his life.” As McDonald would later put it: “I wanted to free myself of all the negative, destructive emotions tht his act of violence had unleashed in me: anger bitterness, hatred. . “ Sadly, the shooter—with whom McDonald carried on a correspondence—did not find peace and purpose; he died in an East Harlem motorcycle crash only days after his release from prison. It would be McDonald who turned tragedy into purpose—speaking not only across the five boroughs of New York but in Washington and even Belfast, where the Irish-American policeman carried his message of forgiveness.
Many of those touched by McDonald would take the time to write.
From the mother of an 11-year-old special needs daughter, bullied at school, came this.
“Dear Detective McDonald:
Thank you for speaking at the Northport Middle School in January. The timing of your visit, I can only believe, was an answer to my prayer from that very morning.. .I had prayed tht God would protect (my daughter) from the fiery darts of insulting and hurtful comments and that he would surround her with his angels. . . It was so comforting and ressuring to me that someone in your position would turn a tragedy into an opportunity to educate and inform individuals of the pain we cause each other when we ae not accepting of each other.”
And this from the principal of a Brooklyn public school:
“It is difficult to express adequately our thanks and gratitude for coming to our school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to show children the real meaning of love, forgiveness and concern for others. . . Today will live on in the hearts and minds of those in attendance for your presentation changed their lives forever—you made them stop, reflect and think about their values and ideals, especially related to how they treat others and how they expected to be treated, in mind.”
There is no doubt that those whose vision leads them to start and guide organizations which approach our shared problems in original and effective ways deserve gratitude and recognition.
But, as the life of Steven McDonald showed, one’s own purpose and courage can help change the world, through example.
This piece originally appeared at Forbes.com
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.