Carol McCormack’s voice broke again and again and again.
She was on the phone 2,000 miles away, but I could tell she was fighting back the tears as decade-old memories poured out.
The memories were of the attack on the World Trade Center and how Mesa responded.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, McCormack, now director of the Hampton Roads (Va.) United Way, was in Mesa running the Mesa United Way.
John Whiteman, then CEO for Empire Southwest of Mesa, was in the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., a couple of blocks from the White House.
Head of a thriving heavy construction equipment dealership, Whiteman woke up to the piercing sound of sirens.
“This is the noisiest place I’ve ever been in,” Whiteman complained to his wife, Dolores, and vowed never to come back.
Unable to fall back to sleep, Whiteman powered up his laptop and saw the headlines on his AOL page.
“Turn on the television. Something has happened to the twin towers,” he recalled saying to Dolores.
When he had absorbed what had happened and against his wife’s better judgment, they left the hotel and started walking.
“I wanted to experience the moment,” he said.
What he experienced was traffic in gridlock, security personnel armed with machine guns and SUVs with blacked out windows everywhere.
And there was something else he noticed: In the urban cauldron of the nation’s capital, where streets are often filled with the busy, the self-important and self-absorbed, Whiteman saw people being kind to each other.
That kindness and knowing people wanted to help gave Whiteman an idea. He called his son, Jeff, and asked him to make an offer to Carol McCormack and the Mesa United Way.
Empire Southwest offered a $100,000 matching grant. For every dollar that was contributed to the Mesa United Way for victims of the attack, his family business at the corner of Country Club Drive and Baseline Road would contribute a dollar up to a hundred grand.
But there was a catch. And with recent news stories raising questions about the integrity of some of the 9/11 fundraising operations, it was an important catch.
The money had to go directly to the “little people that nobody thinks of.” Checks were to be cut in the names of specific people in need as a result of the attack on the World Trade Center. And the process would be transparent and verifiable.
Unlike some other 9/11 charitable ventures, contributors to the Mesa United Way 9/11 fund would be able to follow their dollars.
Finally, he didn’t want a little money spread over a lot of people. He wanted each recipient to get enough money for it to make a difference in their lives at a time of great hardship.
Meeting those conditions was not as difficult as you might think, Carol McCormack said.
McCormack’s United Way team focused on workers at the WTC’s Windows on the World restaurant.
“We knew that if they reported to work that day, they died,” she said.
The Food Workers Union gave Mesa United Way the name of every worker who perished, the names of their family members and their family circumstances. The United Way focused on workers who were their family’s primary bread winners and those who had no life insurance.
By early November, the people of Mesa had met Whiteman’s challenge and doubled it, bringing the total amount of money to over $300,000.
“We had children doing plays” to raise money, McCormack recalled.
And in one of those moments in which McCormack had to pause to regain her composure, she told how the homeless shelter for men, known today as the East Valley Men’s Center — Margie’s Place, held a car wash to help out and raised hundreds of dollars.
“Think about what little they have,” she said. “That was a lot of money to them.”
McCormack said when she called the United Food Workers Union to arrange to bring checks for about $7,000 for each recipient family, the woman who took the call burst into tears.
She was overwhelmed that people from 2,000 miles away in a city she had never heard of were helping the families of servers and busboys.
There was one other condition that Whiteman attached to Empire Southwest’s $100,000 grant and that resulted in a call to the East Valley Tribune.
Whiteman wanted to make sure the check presentation ceremony was covered by a reporter. Not for the publicity but for the assurance that a disinterested and credible observer could verify that the money raised in Mesa made it to specific needy families in New York.
“If a little kid gave a nickel, we wanted them to know it went to someone who didn’t have a mother or dad,” Whiteman said.
Jeff Whiteman, John’s son and now Empire Southwest’s CEO, made the journey to New York to deliver the checks.
“For someone like us to walk in and hand them money just blew their minds,” he recalled. “They were having a hard time understanding why someone from the other side of the country would care about them.”
“We were talking to people whose lives as they knew it were over,” he said. “We were bridging them to whatever the next chapter of their lives was going to be.
“For those people in the room, we definitely made a big difference.”
A little over a year ago, McCormack left Mesa and returned to her home state of Virginia to take over the United Way in the Norfolk/Virginia Beach region.
But in talking about Mesa’s response to the 9/11 attack, it’s evident that Mesa left a mark on her heart.
“Mesa is a great city,” she said. “People there greatly undervalue what a nice place it is.
“The sense of community in Mesa is unreal. It’s the biggest small town you’ll ever see, and that’s a compliment.”
Thank you, Carol, I’ll pass it on.
• Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org