Eighteen years ago tomorrow, our homeland was attacked by terrorist hijackers who crashed American passenger planes into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, the Pentagon and a farm field in Shanksville, PA. It was an unforgettable and unforgivable day in our history.
Loss of lives totaled nearly 3,000. Loss of a sense of security in our nation was incalculable.
I lost a friend and lacrosse teammate that day. His name was Michael San Phillip. He was working on the 104th floor in the second tower as an investment adviser for a small firm, Sandler, O’Neill. On the clear blue day, 83 people reported to work that day; 66 never returned home to family and friends.
Mike, whom his fraternity brothers and teammates called “Sal,” was a football player turned lacrosse defenseman. A steady performer, he was well-liked. After graduation in May 1967, I never saw him again.
When I learned of Sal’s death, I had just become president of my class at the University of Pennsylvania. I knew I wanted to do something to memorialize an unfortunate victim of a heinous, cleverly planned assault on America and its national psyche.
I decided that a scholarship in his name would be a positive reaction to a horrendous act of war. Fortunately, I was able to persuade the university and the powers-to-be in my class to support the fundraising necessary to create a meaningful memorial to my teammate.
The next step was to meet with the family to gain its endorsement of a scholarship, since I knew we would have to gear up a significant awareness campaign among my 1,400 classmates. So, accompanied by a staffer in Penn’s development office, I drove in January 2002 to Ridgewood, NJ, one of several communities in the northern part of the state that sends a horde of communities daily to work in New York City.
We had lunch with Mike’s widow and youngest daughter. We learned that Sal was one of 13 Ridgewood residents who did not return home on Sept. 11, 2001. We learned that Lynn and Carrie had collected his wallet in January 2002 from a police precinct. I wondered how a person’s wallet could have survived a fiery death. I learned that Mike didn’t like to carry his wallet with him and had put it in a desk drawer.
Lynn requested that the scholarship be directed to scholar-athletes, since she knew how much he loved sports. I thought the request was reasonable and hoped that the university would agree. It did.
Fast forward to 2019, and we have raised nearly $900,000 in market value for this endowed memorial fund. The school distributes proceeds to three recipients every year. Once a year, I meet these incredible young men and women at an annual scholarship celebration. Jill Abbott, Mike’s oldest daughter, joins me, along with her daughter, Mickey (Michelle), named after the grandfather she never knew.
I tell this story, because it represents my little effort to do something positive amid the ramifications of a terrible tragedy. When I was promoting the new scholarship to my classmates—only a few of whom would have known Mike San Phillip—I used the pitch that perhaps, just perhaps, one of the San Phillip Memorial Scholarship recipients might be able to help find a solution to the deep-seated hatred and estrangement that motivated terrorists to destroy 3,000 lives and instill fear and trepidation among Americans as they gather in densely populated venues.
My idealism may have been misplaced 18 years ago. But, as I wrote, I had to find a way to react positively to an event that still sickens me. I was in a position to take action that would provide hope, not just for me but my classmates—and the stricken San Phillip family.
Though raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from generous classmates has been challenging, I have considered the effort one of the most worthwhile in my life. I mourned like many. I was agitated like most. And I was determined to find some glimmer of redemption amid horror and hatefulness.
Another deeply satisfying aspect of helping to create and sustain a fund for good was observing the response of a 9/11 victim’s loved ones. Jill, who lives in Wilmington, DE, was a source of strength throughout the process. To observe her as she talks every year with the scholarship recipients and exhibits genuine interest in them allows me to take even greater pride in the San Phillip fund.
Jill and I make sure that the more than dozen recipients over 18 years know something about her father, and why the scholarship was created. We hope they understand, but can’t be sure. We hope they will try to make this world a little better.
Centuries-old animosities are difficult to extinguish. Death of Michael San Phillip by terrorists committed to human destruction has enabled a glimmer of hope.
That’s my dream.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.