By Ray Rose
How do we start? Maybe the easiest way. From the beginning.
Most of us have worn a hat. Hats are meant to advertise, to amuse, to inform and suggest someone to ask a question.
Hats are worn by rich people, poor people, working class people, farmers, factory workers, and for virtually any reason you could imagine.
Hats are also worn by firemen, police officers, the Army, the Air Force, Marine Corps, Merchant Marine, and the Navy. They sometimes entertain people with humor, or carry a political message. We put hats on babies, hats on students when they graduate from school, and many people wear hats on New Year’s Eve.
But eventually we’ll get into when a hat, well, it’s just not just a hat.
The Whitehall Historical Society is located in the Griswold historical home in Whitehall. The current historian and volunteers include Carol and Wayne Senecal, Jim Shinners, Mary Ellen Greco, Ray Brown, Ray and Irene Rose. Each Tuesday they meet, document past historical memories, and make an attempt to preserve the area’s heritage.
For about the past three months, a few of us have been cleaning out “the back room.” Full of empty boxes, windows surrounded by paint chips, dusty shelves, historic clothing, some World War II uniforms worn by local area soldiers, and a shelf full of hats.
It’s taken a little while to document everything in “the back room.” And some of the most recent documentation was on a bunch of hats on an old, dusty shelf. Some were in old boxes from the 1950s and earlier. Each had a hat. Some of them were top hats, and one was even made of beaver. That one would have been from the turn of the 20th century or earlier. But age has taken its toll on the boxes, and some of the hats.
As I worked from left to right, documenting each hat, the maker and any details, I felt it was also important to note any people who might have worn these hats. Sadly, only one had any documentation pinned to it.
Until the end.
In the corner of the right side was a white baseball type cap. What was a baseball cap doing with antique top hats and early 20th century ladies dress hats? The cap was flattened from being on the shelf for so long. And it had a brass colored pin attached to the front.
Probably wasn’t too much to make out of the hat. We always encourage people to put a name on whatever they donate to the Society. The old pictures of grandma and grandpa, sis and brothers mean nothing unless you put a name to them. You can find them in any antique store by the hundreds. Worth something to you and your family. But meaningless when they appear anywhere else.
But this was a special hat. There was, in fact, a little white note attached with a sewing needle to the inside. And it said “Hat. Michael Curtin. NYPD Emergency Services. Died September 11th, 2001. Grandson of Michael E. Finnecan of Whitehall, N.Y.”
Now we have to find out who Michael Curtin is! Did he die in the attack on the World Trade Center? How old was he? Did he have a wife or a family? Who was Michael E. Finnecan of Whitehall, New York? The best thing about this cap is that it answered a question. Who was the person under the cap? But, in a way, it is the worst thing that can happen. It only gave a few answers. We found out that Michael Curtin was a person. He was a law enforcement officer. He died in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, and was a member of Emergency Services. And, the name Curtin … Odd thing. I found a memory of an Irishman … on St. Patrick’s Day.
I brought the card home, and when I emptied my pockets, put the card with Michael Curtin’s name on my dresser. I would research his name eventually. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week.
Maybe next month.
My background haunts me sometimes. Having worked in the intelligence community for 30 years, my natural instinct is to find a stone, then find another, and another, and as the saying goes, leave no stone unturned. It sometimes is not a gift, but a curse.
And from 1996 to 2002, I was involved with law enforcement in Maryland. My wife and I moved to New York state in 2002. And I also do genealogy. I started with only five or six names in 1995.
And thanks to Clifton West in Hague, the names in my genealogy research grew to hundreds, then eventually to thousands; and from small villages in New York to the shores of 17th century Massachusetts; then to England, Ireland and Scotland. And, not being satisfied with just the name and birth date, this research went in-depth into their service to the United States, their units, marriages, children, occupations, etc.
Taking all of this into account, we now have … a card lying on a dresser. The card has a name. And the name on the card is Michael Curtin.
My curiosity didn’t last too long.
Around 7 p.m. on March 16, 2010, I started looking for Michael. Surely, maybe two or three sites on the Internet. An hour maybe, and I’m done. I can go back to watching cable TV.
But it seems as though when Michael passed away, his friends made sure his name would light up the Internet like the Fourth of July in New York Harbor. There must have been 100 sites. Maybe more.
So I began writing this a mere 24 hours after finding a hat. But now it was a very special hat, and it belonged to a very special man.
Where do we start? I think I started with this question!
A little background on Michael Curtin’s family. Originally from Ireland, the Finnican (as spelled on index card) family immigrated to the United States, where his great-grandfather became involved with the Champlain Canal and the Delaware & Hudson (D&H) railroad in Whitehall, New York. Thomas Finnigan (b. 1837 in Ireland) and his wife, Mary (b. c. 1838 in Ireland), are documented in the 1880 U.S. census living in Whitehall with three children; John, Katie and Michael. All three children were born in New York. John passed away of consumption in his mid-30s. Michael Finnican (the grandfather) although born in Whitehall, eventually left for greener pastures. But, through someone writing on a 3×6 card the name of the person that wore the cap, and the name of his grandfather, we can assume that someone gave the family a memento of Michael Curtin after the attack on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
We do know Michael E. Finnican was still living in Whitehall in 1910, and at age 33, was living with his widowed mother, Mary; his sister Mary E. (Finnican) Sheehan (41) and her husband Maurice K. Sheehan (41), and the Sheehan’s daughter, Marion, born March 1909. They had lived on Canal Street at the time of the census. Although difficult to read, it appears they immigrated to the United States in 1852. After the passing of Mary by the 1920 U.S. census, Maurice and Katherine Sheehan moved to their own farm in Kingsbury, New York to raise their three children; Katherine (26) a teacher. May J. (25) a teacher, and Frederick H. (9) at school.
As written in the Ticonderoga Sentinel on Thursday, April 21,1904, “M. E. Finnican of Whitehall, a former partner of James Burleigh in the confectionary and news business in that place, is in town this week as agent for a large book company.”
His heritage was enriched, not just by the fine tradition of working Irishmen, but the fact that
Michael Curtin’s grand uncle, John Finnican, joined Company I, New York National Guard on Dec.
13, 1887, and was honorably discharged from the unit Oct. 11, 1902.
A little of John Finnigan.
He was born in Painted Post, Steuben County, N.Y., on Dec. 23, 1866. He died just prior to his 36th birthday of consumption. The family were members of Our Lady of Angels Catholic Church in Whitehall, and he was active in the church throughout his life. At his funeral at Boardman Cemetery in Whitehall were 51 members of Company I, dressed appropriately in full uniform. At the conclusion of the ceremony, eight uniformed soldiers of the unit provided three volleys.
At this time we know nothing of Michael Curtin’s mother or father. But the family stayed in New York. Michael Curtin himself was born in Liberty, N.Y., and moved to Long Island when he was a child. He graduated from Rocky Point High School in 1975 and enlisted in the Marine Corps shortly after. Curtin was called to active duty for the next 12 years and was discharged with the rank of sergeant major.
Somewhere between basic training and active duty Curtin met his wife on Christmas Eve 1979 on Parris Island. According to his wife, “I went down there with roommates over Christmas Eve break,” his wife said. “One of them was dating Michael’s roommate, so that’s how we met.”
Sergeant Curtin was appointed to the NYPD on Jan. 26, 1988, after serving 12 years of active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps. He began his career on patrol in Field Training Unit 13.
He was originally assigned to Emergency Services Unit (ESU) in July 1991, but saw his police career interrupted when, as a U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) reservist, he was called to duty during Desert Storm. Serving on the front lines, he held the rank of gunnery sergeant and retired from the Reserves as a sergeant major. After returning to the NYPD, he responded to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and was also assigned to FEMA in the Oklahoma City rescue efforts. He was promoted to sergeant in December 1995, and re-assigned to ESU in 1998.
Although he had recently taken up golf, most of his spare time was spent working on his house.
Michael Curtain was 45 years old when the United States was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. He was due home to cook his wife, Helga, a birthday cake, on her 40th birthday.
Michael was an ex-Marine, if there is such a word. There is no such thing as an ex-Marine. Semper Fi. He served his country as a Marine in Operation Desert Storm. You can reference the Internet with:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulf War for more information on Desert Storm.
But keep in mind, as you read each word, each sentence, each paragraph on Kuwait and Desert Storm, men like Michael Curtain left their wives and children to deploy to a land they had never known. Vicious sand storms where you can’t see the hand in front of your eyes. Dry heat that would cook an egg on a Jeep at 138 degrees. And doing this while in a Marine uniform with a bullet-proof vest that wasn’t bullet-proof, and in an armored vehicle that would cook you in 30 minutes. And Michael left three little girls to be a Marine in the Middle East.
And a man named Curtin became a sergeant. And then he became a gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps. For those who don’t understand what a gunnery sergeant is, the grade defines a leader. Technically, his rank was defined as “A noncommissioned officer in pay grade E-7 who wears three chevrons and two rockers with crossed rifles between them on both sleeves or collar.” But to a Marine, once you become a gunny, you have earned respect as a leader.
Michael Curtain then joined the New York City Police Department. Historically, New York City has been known for its breeding of Irish-American police officers. It is a proud heritage going back to the 1800s, and has continued until present day. An “insider” club as a gunny sergeant, within an “insider” club in the Marines, and then to an “insider” club as a New York City cop.
Now we know a little about the man that wore the hat. And the more you read about the man that wore the hat, the more important the hat becomes. And the more important the hat becomes, you come to the realization that it isn’t the hat itself that’s important. It was the man under the hat that was important. It was what he did with his life while he was with us. And when he left on September 11, 2001, his value as a man lit up the Internet like the Fourth of July.
So many people have noted the accomplishments by this man. But it can be best summarized by a message left by his brother-in-law, Werner Klampfl. And I quote:
“My sister, Helga, turned 40 on Sept. 11th. Because of their hectic work schedules, her husband, Mike, planned a small get-together with a few of their closest friends on the previous Friday night. He planned on getting home early on the 11th so that he could prepare a nice birthday dinner for Helga, but his plan never came to fruition. Sgt. Michael Sean Curtin, a member of Harlem-based Emergency Service Unit Truck 2 of the New York City Police Department, died in the World Trade Center attacks. He was last heard from that morning when he phoned Helga to wish her a happy birthday. Mike represented the true meaning of hero – ordinary people who do extraordinary things for others, without ever expecting anything in return. Speaking at Mike’s memorial service, NY police commissioner Bernard Kerik said, ‘There are a number of people in the New York City Police Department who were heroes far before that day. In looking at Michael’s history with the NYPD, it was apparent that he was a hero long before Sept. 11. He was a Marine. He was someone that loved his country, loved his department and most importantly, he loved his girls, all four of them.’ Helga and Mike have three daughters, Jennifer, 15, Erica, 14, and Heather, 12.
“Mike was not only one of the first to respond to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. He was also one of the first to respond to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center where he was lowered from a helicopter onto the roof of the Trade Center to clear an area for evacuation. He was a Marine through and through, temporarily putting his NYPD duties on hold while he served in the Gulf during Desert Storm. And he also received a great deal of notoriety for his actions during the rescue and recovery efforts in the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing, when Mike discovered the remains of Marine Capt. Randy Guzman, an officer in charge of the recruiting office at the Oklahoma City Federal Building. Because of the dangerous location, Mike and a few others had to request special permission to recover Guzman’s remains. They were able to recover the body of Capt. Guzman, draped him with a U.S. flag, and ceremoniously saluted him as he was carried from the site.
“He was just as passionate about his work with the NYPD. He was often in dangerous situations risking his own life to save others. He saved construction worker Marihenda Tunkara from the 1999 Harlem building collapse that pinned him beneath mounds of rubble, breaking his knee and hip and knocking him unconscious. By the time Mr. Tunkara awoke, Mike and his partners were standing over his hospital bed, wishing him well and urging him to be careful when he returned to work. Later, Mr. Tunkara said that he would have died if it weren’t for Mike. ‘I want to tell his family that police are good people – he is a good person.’
“Mayor Rudolph W. Guiliani said that Mike’s service to the city made him proud. ‘When I come to a memorial service like this, it gives me great strength and inspiration … and it makes me feel very,
very proud that we have people that defend America and defend New York and it shows strength and
bravery.’ He went on to tell Helga and the girls that “you can’t take your daddy away from you, it
can’t be done. It’s not possible. You have something that lots of children don’t have; you have the
absolute sure knowledge that your dad was a great man, an American patriot, and we thank you very
“To see the thousands of police officers, Marines, neighbors, friends and even strangers that turned out for Mike’s memorial service was overwhelming, and to know that his short life had touched so many people is truly a tribute to the man he was. I’ll always remember Mike as the fun-loving yet exceptionally modest and humble person who was immensely loyal to and proud of his family as well as a terrific friend to everyone that knew him. It feels like only yesterday that I met this kind and decent person, and I felt terrific then knowing that he’d be the perfect soul mate for my sister. Now I take solace in knowing that he’ll always be remembered as the loving husband, nurturing dad, helpful neighbor, and truly unselfish hero that he was. He was, and will always be, the real deal.”
Ask yourself, what have you done today in the service of your country. For your community? For your family?
And then you’ll realize, only a few people would be able to fit under the cap worn by this man.
On Sept. 11, 2001, we lost 413 hats that served their maker, their country, their communities and their families. Each of those hats had to be filled after they left to become a memory in the heart of the world; New York Police Department, 23 officers; New York and New Jersey Port Authority, 37 officers lost; U.S. Secret Service, one officer lost; F.B.I., one officer lost; U.S. Fish and Wildlife, one officer lost; Fire Department of New York, 343 firefighters lost; private ambulance providers, seven crew lost. And one Police Authority police dog named Serius.
Their names can be found at
Each of these hats needed to be filled again, by men like Michael Curtin, who could have quit school, but didn’t; who could have not served his country, but did; who could have decided to not serve his community, but did. But, in the true tradition of the Marine Corps which he joined for eternity, he extended his arm and reached out so no one was left behind. And, as in the tradition of most law enforcement organizations, on Sept. 11, 2001, people like Michael Curtin made sure no one was left behind.
He is survived by his wife, Helga; children Jennifer, Erika, and Heather; and brother Jack.
Sgt. Michael Curtin’s hat is on view at the Whitehall Historical Society. The Society is located in the Griswold Library on North William Street. It is open on Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
It has taken exactly one week from the time I met Michael until today. It has been an honor and a privilege to have met him. When you see him and those who have gone before him on July Fourth, say, Thank You!