Cold stone can comfort when words are true

Sometimes words can move people. Two history-loving Troopers read our editorial last month and responded.

We had written about Harold C. Mattice, the first New York State Trooper to die by gunfire in the line of duty. Raised in Berne, Mattice was a blacksmith like his father before him and had first joined the State Police in 1917, the year it was founded. This was back when police rode horses.

He was shot dead on April 28, 1923, at the age of 33, leaving behind a son and a pregnant widow.

His grave in Berne’s Woodlawn Cemetery was brought to our attention by Fred Peter Bassler who visits the grave of his wife at Woodlawn.

“Here’s this fellow who lost his life doing what he did, and he’s got this crummy grave,” said Bassler, who was unable to find any of Mattice’s family. “It doesn’t seem right.”

When we talked to Kevin Kailbourne, who lives across the state, he knew immediately what Mattice’s grave looked like. “The sad part is, there’s a big chunk out,” he said. “I can still picture the stone.”

He’s right. The small simple stone, embedded in the earth, is missing its lower right corner, cutting off the date of his death.

How did Kailbourne know this?

Kailbourne, who just turned 65, has devoted his life to memorializing State Troopers. He had gone to the University of Buffalo as a young man, intending to be a history teacher. His uncle, his mother’s brother, was a Trooper. “He talked me into joining,” said Kailbourne. “I was always glad.”

Kailbourne served until 2005 when he retired as a zone sergeant. One Memorial Day, around 1998, Kailbourne noticed the American flags decorating the graves of soldiers. “I thought it would be nice to honor deceased Troopers,” he said.

He designed a marker with a medallion, depicting a Trooper, that holds a flag. Backed by the Association of Retired Troopers — “They said, if you do the history, we’ll support you,” Kailbourne recalled — he started tracking down Alleghany County Troopers who had died.

The project spread from there to cover the entire state.

Altogether, 120 Troopers have died in the line of duty. Kailbourne honors all who served.

“If we don’t remember them, nobody will,” said Kailbourne.

“We send out 1,200 New York State flags a year across the state,” said Kailbourne. “My wife and I put in 700 markers.”

Tracking down deceased Troopers isn’t easy. “It’s a lot like detective work,” said Kailbourne. He found Corporal Mattice’s grave about a decade ago. “I felt bad when I put in the marker; the first Trooper killed on duty and nothing to honor him,” he recalled.

He pieced together the story of Mattice’s death: A man was out on bail on a rape charge and was suspected of setting fire to a barn in Morris, N.Y. The suspect was in the attic of the farmhouse with a rifle and a shotgun. Mattice and a partner went to the house. “After he hears the shots, he pumps four or five rounds through the ceiling,” said Kailbourne. The suspect killed himself and is buried in Sherburne (Chenango County), N.Y.

That same year, just five months later, another Trooper was shot and killed outside of Latham. Roy A. Donivan died on Oct. 8, 1923. He was in an unmarked car on Route 9, Kailbourne said, when highway robbers held him up and shot him.

He is buried in Shandaken (Ulster County), N.Y.  “He has a nice stone; it tells about being killed in the line of duty,” Kailbourne said.

Such a stone for a Trooper who died in that era is unusual, said Kailbourne, explaining they were paid very little and their widows weren’t paid much after their death.

As the police force evolved, many of the Troopers were bachelors who lived in barracks, he said. “A lot went into World War II,” he said. “They were used to the barracks life and following orders…After the war, a lot had had enough. They got a better-paying job.”

Of the younger ones who then filled the ranks, he went on, “They’d meet a gal on the circuit, or patrol, marry her, and have to get a better-paying job….Even though they were Troopers at heart, there was just not enough pay.”

It wasn’t until the 1960s, in the Rockefeller era, Kailbourne said, that the pay went up enough for a Trooper to support his family. “The husband would come home with a hundred dollars a week and they thought they were in heaven.”

“Every Trooper has a story,” said Kailbourne, who would like to write a book about all the stories he has unearthed.

Kailbourne sent our editorial, with the story of Mattice’s grave, along to Tom Mungeer, president of the New York State Troopers Police Benevolent Association whom, he wrote, “loves history like myself.”

Mungeer, in turn, wrote to us this month, “I will update you as things move along but I can assure you that the NYS Troopers PBA will make sure that Corporal Mattice’s final resting place will be adequately marked so future generations will know about his sacrifice to the People of the State of New York.”

Kailbourne also wrote to us, “Keep up the outstanding writing and work.”

We could say the same to him.

We are eager to see what words will be engraved on the new marker for Corporal Mattice, and we wonder what future generations they might move.

When soldiers or police officers die in the line of duty, we mourn them as a society in a public way. We have a sense that they were serving all of us, even if we never knew them or didn’t favor the war in which they fought.

The monuments that mark them and the words that explain them take on added import.

We recall the care with which Joseph Persico, a Guilderland author, chose the words to be inscribed on the World War II monument in Washington, D.C. underneath the 4,000 gold stars, each one standing for 100 Americans killed in the war.

“I must have come up with 50 possible versions,” Persico told us soon after the monument was unveiled. He referred to the seven words as “a kind of poetry in granite”: “Here we mark the price of freedom.”

“Especially on the field of gold stars representing all the casualties,” he said. “I wanted something simple that expressed the idea of sacrifice for a positive purpose, not just sacrifice like Vietnam.”

May Lin took a more personal approach with the memorial to the war dead or missing from Vietnam — over 58,000 names are etched in the stark, black marble. For more than three decades, millions of visitors have come each year, leaving behind countless flowers and mementos and one Harley-Davidson motorcycle with the license plate “HERO.”

People come not only to pay their respects but also to reflect.

“You see a lot of heartbreak and tragedy,” Kailbourne told us. Sometimes monuments help us to heal.

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