Column: How to honor the memory of Heidi Behr

09/14/2012 8:00 AM |
Heidi Behr, Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance

NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | The future Heidi Behr Memorial Park & Boardwalk?

It’s heroes week in the United States, as it is every year around the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.

TV, newspapers and Facebook abound with images and remembrances of those lost on Sept. 11, 2001, with a spotlight on the men and women who ran to their deaths to save others.

Sept. 11 has become a sort of de facto memorial day for the country’s much-deserving emergency responders.

So there may be no better time than now to remark on one of Riverhead’s greatest fallen heroes — volunteer EMT Heidi Behr — and how we could best honor her memory.

Heidi was killed in an ambulance crash while responding to a call in May 2005. William Stone, a paramedic from Rocky Point, was also killed in the crash.

They were part of a crew rushing a heart attack victim to the hospital when their ambulance struck a tree on Main Road in Aquebogue.

Heidi, only 23 at the time, left behind a 13-month-old son, Jared, who is blind and suffers from epilepsy, cerebral palsy and brain damage. Ever since the crash, he’s been raised by Heidi’s parents, John and June, with the help of their other daughter, Dana.

The outpouring of support this family has received from fellow ambulance and fire volunteers and others since Heidi’s death has been awe-inspiring.

When it was becoming nearly impossible for the Behrs to continue raising Jared, who cannot walk, in their modest 800-square-foot house on Riverside Drive, a group of local people and businesses donated time and money to rebuild the Cutchogue home of June Behr’s late parents and make it fully handicapped accessible.

It’s now a place where Jared can grow — with plenty of room for his necessary support equipment — as his grandparents age.

And through the effort to rebuild that house, the Heidi’s Helping Angels community support group was born.

Volunteers with Heidi’s Helping Angels are at work every year now, mostly raising money for scholarships for Riverhead and Mercy high school students in Heidi’s name. In fact, next Thursday night is the group’s annual steak dinner fundraiser at Polish Hall. At last year’s event, Peconic Bay Medical Center pledged an annual $5,000 donation to the Heidi Behr Memorial Scholarship Fund.

These examples of one community’s outpouring of support are why I always tell people that if they ever, God forbid, found themselves facing some life-threatening injury or otherwise in need of help after a tragedy, they would be so lucky to live in Riverhead.

This is a community that rallies like no other I’ve witnessed on Long Island.

Which is why it’s beyond my understanding that more than seven years after her death, no government property has been named in Heidi Behr’s honor. I can’t think of a more deserving person to have a highway or bridge named after her.

In town and in the schools we have dozens of places and structures, big and small, named for people. Think of all the parks named after politicians, including Stotzky Memorial Park, Milton L. Burns Park and Lombardi Park.

Yet nothing for Heidi Behr.

Here was a volunteer, a 23-year-old single mother, who died in the line of duty trying to save another person’s life. And she wasn’t just an ambulance member; she was one of the best. Heidi had received “Top Responder” and “Corpsman of the Year” awards with the ambulance corps.

She may be the town’s greatest fallen hero outside of Medal of Honor recipient Garfield Langhorn.

While we live in a world full of complainers, young and old alike, dwelling on what they haven’t got, this young women gave herself — not only to her son and her family, but to her community.

Imagine just a playground named for Heidi. Children across Riverhead might then be asking who she was.

She was one of the best our community has ever produced, parents would answer. She was a true role model.

I’ll float one bold idea right here. The riverfront boardwalk park downtown is in need of a namesake. It should be named the Heidi Behr Memorial Park & Boardwalk. Throughout most of the year, the park is a quiet, tranquil place, with the placid Peconic River as its centerpiece. It’s a place many of us stop to sit and reflect. It would be fitting.

Heidi Behr grew up just a short walk from the Peconic River as a kid. A young hero in the making.

Michael White is the editor of the News-Review. He can be reached at mwhite@timesreview.com or 631-298-3200, ext. 152.

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