Dedication to thanking servicemen brings 9/11 memorial to N.J. club

Daily Record

Joe Cary stands in front of plaques honoring the victims of 9/11, with a piece of the World Trade Center in the background. Robert Ward, staff photographer

Joe Cary stands in front of plaques honoring the victims of 9/11, with a piece of the World Trade Center in the background. Robert Ward, staff photographer

FARMINGDALE — With a massive piece of twisted steel from the World Trade Center stretching skyward as its centerpiece, this 9/11 memorial is strikingly beautiful and tastefully executed, a fitting tribute to those who sacrificed everything on September 11, 2001.

But why is it located at Eagle Oaks Golf & Country Club?

When you understand the reason the Port Authority delivered this 22-foot mass that once stretched between the 82nd and 85th floors of the North Tower — where 37 Port Authority Police officers perished — to the New Jersey golf club, you realize how special this place is and its members are.

Ultimately, it’s about how something as simple as a steak dinner in Manhattan can be nurtured and grown over time, until it sends positive ripples in every direction.

As Joe Cary, an Eagle Oaks member from Monroe, was speaking at the podium during the dedication ceremony two weekends ago with the families of fallen Port Authority personnel in attendance, it was both humbling and cathartic.

“I was a block away from the Twin Towers on the day of the attack,” he said. “One of my recollections was seeing the first responders sprinting, and I mean sprinting, into that building. People were trying to get out and they were trying to get in.

“I was with a buddy of mine who was a Naval Academy graduate and the fighter jets started flying overhead and he said, ‘That’s the sound of freedom. Those are our guys, we’re going to be OK now.’ Literally the hairs stood up on my arms. It just hit me. ‘Oh my God. I have lived under this blanket of freedom my entire life due to the sacrifices of everybody else, able to do whatever I want every single day.’ ”

It served as a catalyst for personal change.

So Cary, whose father was a Marine, and a fellow Wall Streeter began taking a group of 30 or 40 Marines out for a steak dinner during Fleet Week each year as a way to say “thank you.”

At one of those dinners about seven years ago, they were having so much fun he ended up taking a few of the soldiers to play golf the next day at Eagle Oaks. While having drinks afterwards, Domenic Gatto, the club’s owner and a Vietnam veteran, joined them.

He had no idea what Cary had been doing, but when he heard about it, he wanted the club to get involved.

In 2009, Eagle Oaks held its first “Honor Day,” inviting 50-to-60 Marines down for a day of golf during Fleet Week, and another 200 or so for dinner that evening. All while using the day to raise money for Hope for the Warriors, a charity focusing on the families of deceased or disabled military personnel.

By 2012, the club was raising $120,000 annually, as the event became a fixture for both members and military personnel.

“The members embraced the idea of bring then down and giving them ownership of the club during Fleet Week,” said Gatto. “They become the members and we work for them. The members loved this event. I remember there were tears in everyone’s eyes when they were playing Taps that first year.”

As Honor Day grew, some local law enforcement agencies were invited to participate, including the Port Authority Police. Among those who attended was Thomas McHale, a detective who has worked overseas with the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

“He’s a very senior type guy and was just blown away by the whole thing,” said Cary. “He said, ‘You don’t even understand what the club is doing here. I see these kids in this environment having this much fun, and it’s humbling. It’s unbelievable.’ ”

At one of the dinners McHale told Cary the Port Authority wanted to give the club a piece of steel. It was one they dubbed “the waterfall” because of its shape, and one that held great significance to them.

At that point, the club rallied again, creating a memorial that encompasses the events in New York, at the Pentagon and in Western Pennsylvania, with three plaques capturing the essence of that day rather than the specific details. In addition, there’s a Port Authority Police Walkway of Heroes to immortalize their sacrifice.

“I would say 85 percent of our members were involved in some way,” Gatto noted. “They paid for it out of their own pockets. It’s a place to bring people and show their guests, and everyone is in awe of this piece of steel. It really hit home when we had the ceremony. As the memorial says, ‘We will never forget.’ ”

As it turns out, Fleet Week was canceled this year, although the hope is that it will return, along with Honor Day, in 2014. In its place, last month the club held a smaller gathering that focused on local families.

“It’s amazing how something as simple as a dinner can turn into something this massive,” added Cary. “I, for one, along with the club members, have had the privilege of watching how this has grown over the years, and how many people have benefited.”

So while a 9/11 memorial might seem out of place at a golf club, it’s perfectly positioned at Eagle Oaks.

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