Stories of Comfort
Books help 9/11 families keep memories


By Joseph V. Amodio
Joseph V. Amodio is a freelance writer.

December 22, 2003


In the days and weeks after Steve Bernstein lost his brother Billy in the World Trade Center attacks, his family sought comfort in a memoir Steve had written two years earlier. It included a chapter on his brother, a bond broker at Cantor Fitzgerald.

"The stories were comforting, and I realized how important it was to have details of his life recorded," says Bernstein, a Citigroup executive. It felt, he said, like a gift worth sharing.

He turned to his publisher, Kitty Axelson-Berry, head of Modern Memoirs, a private firm based in Amherst, Mass. The company, which publishes manuscripts (like Bernstein's book) for a fee, also specializes in commissioned memoirs - a fee-based service that provides writers to interview clients and document personal stories and family histories. Bernstein thought it would be a service other 9/11 families would find meaningful, perhaps even healing - if it could be offered for free. So in 2002, he and Axelson-Berry founded the American Tribute Center (ATC), a nonprofit group that helps 9/11 families produce limited-edition, hard-bound volumes honoring the memory of lost loved ones - at no charge.

The ATC has produced four books, and eight more are under way. (Families get 25 free copies; additional volumes can be purchased for about $30 a book.) In all, more than 200 families have expressed interest, Bernstein says.

Patty DeAngelis, of Westbury, heard of the service and was intrigued, but she was apprehensive about revealing personal stories to strangers. Her late husband, Tommy, had been a battalion chief at the East 51st Street fire station in Manhattan, and was a 27-year veteran with the New York City Fire Department. Several widows in her 9/11 support group who'd heard of the ATC had told her they just couldn't do it. "They weren't ready," says DeAngelis, who also was reluctant. "But then I met Steve Bernstein, and he was just so wonderful." She signed on.

Bernstein, who lives in Sands Point with his wife, Ilise, and their three daughters, is not your typical Wall Streeter; he is given to indulging his varied enthusiasms. He plays the mandolin, he's a huge Grateful Dead fan. He even publishes Relix, a 29-year-old rock music magazine with a cult following, which he bought and helped redesign.

For ATC, he has lined up corporate donors (there are about a dozen, including Citigroup Foundation, and Wall Street firms such as Communicator Inc. and Moness Crespi Hardt), although he says a good portion of the startup funding came from his own pocket. "Steve is our idea guy, encouraging us to think of the possibilities," says Lynda Sun Lee, a New Jersey marketing executive who sits on the ATC board, along with Axelson- Berry and Bernstein.

Ilise Bernstein, a former social worker, serves as ATC's family liaison. The book projects are a way for families to work through the grieving process, she says. And they relieve survivors of a formidable burden that is rarely discussed: that of memory.

"They feel great pressure to not let memories fade," Ilise says. "Now they can relax." The details are there, on a shelf, ready to be taken down or left there.

It costs ATC about $7,000 to produce each title. First there is a research phase. One of 15 writers, culled from a stable of Modern Memoirs or Relix freelancers, is assigned to a family and conducts a four-hour interview with interested relatives and friends. DeAngelis invited Tommy's siblings and his two children, Christine and Tommy Jr., from a previous marriage. She also met with the writer about a dozen times to fact-check and flesh out details.

"We'd sit at the dining room table and talk about birthdays and family vacations," she recalls.

"I'd come through whenever I had something to say," says her daughter, Nicole DeAngelis, a high school junior.

The process can be slow, as the writers have all been working as volunteers and have had to squeeze in the work between paid assignments. The DeAngelis book took more than a year to produce, but Axelson-Berry hopes to whittle that time down to eight months.

On Dec. 11, the DeAngelises received the finished product. Each cover is cobalt blue, with embossed gold lettering that reads "Quiet Magic," a title that DeAngelis picked. Its 56 pages contain a profile of Tommy DeAngelis, family photos, a list of some of his favorite things - Jimmy Buffett, "Columbo," roller coasters, Snoopy - notes from loved ones, and two short stories that he wrote in the years before his death.

"The process can be difficult," says Bernstein, sitting in his lower Manhattan office. "Our selection committee looks at certain criteria," he says. "Is the family ready to do a book right now? Do they have the commitment?" Another 10 families will be chosen to begin the process next month.

Joseph Maurer, a retired firefighter from Middle Village, wasn't sure. "To speak of your child in the past tense - that's what's murderous," he said. His daughter, Jill Maurer Campbell, was married with a 10-month-old son, and worked in Tower Two.

Maurer and his wife, Jeanne, in conjunction with Jill's husband, Stephen Campbell, began the process in June, and their book is now in the final editing stages.

"I want to do as many books for as long as we can," says Bernstein, adding that the future looks good. Donations are increasing, and a fund-raiser last month brought in $150,000, he said. "This is just the first project we took on, and I think it has legs."

To contribute, or find out more information, call 516-767-3863, or go to www.tributecenter.org.

A YOUNG FIREFIGHTER

The family was hosting a barbecue and Larry Burns, now a retired Battalion Chief, asked Tommy in passing what he planned to do with his life. Tommy replied that he was thinking of becoming a teacher, but Larry casually suggested that he take the New York Fire Department exam. "I never thought of it," Tommy responded. But his eyes "lit up."

Despite starting to study only three months before the rigorous [FDNY] tests - the study group he joined had already been meeting for months - he passed with flying colors in 1974, scoring in the top 10 of some 300 other young men, and joined the department the same year. His first assignment was in Brooklyn, which involved its own brand of dangers for firefighters: tenement buildings that caught fire after being booby-trapped by drug dealers. Despite the constant peril, Tommy found that he loved the job. He had discovered his calling.

- from "Quiet Magic: Battalion Chief Thomas P. DeAngelis, April 27, 1950_September 11, 2001," published by the American Tribute Center.

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