It was standing-room-only at Saint Catherine of Sienna Roman Catholic Church in St. Albans last Thursday, as hundreds of family, friends, veterans and elected officials gathered to pay their respects to Michael Handy, longtime director of the city’s Office of Veterans Affairs.
Handy, 55, died suddenly of a heart attack on May 31, leaving his large extended family and 4,000 New York City veterans bereft.
He was a “veteran’s veteran,” in the words of Congressman Charles Rangel (D-Manhattan), who viewed his responsibilities at the Mayor’s Office as not just a job or a political position, but a life’s calling.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in St. Albans, Handy joined the United States Air Force in 1968 and served as an enlisted soldier in the Vietnam War. Upon his return, he served in the Office of Budget and Management and the Office of Housing, Preservation and Development.
In 1993, former Mayor David Dinkins appointed him to the Office of Veteran Affairs, a position that he held through four mayoral administrations.
“He will be hard to replace,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at the St. Albans funeral. “Michael left a standard that will carry this city and its veterans well.”
Bloomberg told the story of how, just after his election, he asked former Mayor Rudy Giuliani if there were any commissioners he should keep on staff. Giuliani recommended only two—Handy and former Department of Transportation Commissioner Eliot Sander—quite a compliment, Bloomberg said, considering that both were Democrats from Brooklyn.
“There was never a challenge that (Handy) turned down,” the mayor said. “But it was his honesty, more than anything else, that came through. He was somebody who came through, touched people and made the world better.”
Handy’s desire to improve the lot of veterans extended beyond partisanship or even national borders.
As recently as Sunday, May 4th, he visited the general assembly of the Federation of French War Veterans to ensure that the recently strained relations between France and the United States did not affect the bonds between their veterans, who fought side by side in past wars.
“It was so delicate and elegant of him,” wrote federation president Bruce Boeglin in a statement read by Handy’s sister, Catherine Grechkosey. Boeglin also wrote of Handy’s charm and devotion to veterans.
Admiral William Fallon, Vice Chief of Naval Operations, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Major General Richard Colt of the 77th Regional Support Command at Fort Totten were among the many uniformed military officers present to honor the veterans’ advocate.
With a bachelor’s degree from York College and a master’s degree in the administration of justice from American University in Washington, D.C., Handy studied, influenced and worked closely with the social and legislative policies that affect veterans’ lives.
He was one of the first advocates of federally-assisted housing for veterans, and was instrumental in raising the benefits of reservists closer to those of full-time military personnel.
In addition, he led New York City’s battle to save the Times Square Recruiting Station and then chaired a task force to facilitate its renovation.
As he approached retirement, Handy spoke of his desire to establish an independent voice to study veterans issues. To carry out his dream, his family and friends have established the Michael Handy Memorial Fund.
“He used to say that it wasn’t a bald spot on the top of his head, but a halo. He was an angel to many,” Grechkosey said.
So many were touched by Handy’s work that the rectory phone at Saint Catherine of Sienna hasn’t stopped ringing since the church was publicly announced as the location for the funeral, said Father William Sweeney.
Handy attended the church and its school as a child, and brought his grandchildren back to the church even after he moved to Brooklyn.
“He was never somebody who was looking for attention,” Sweeney said. “He was devoted to helping people who were not the most popular. He gave his life to others, just as Jesus did. What a great world it would be if more people were like Michael Handy.”
His neighbors agreed. “He was a gentleman, a nice gentleman, always smiling and helpful and never too busy to give a hand,” said Yvonne Straker, a neighbor from Lefferts Manor in Brooklyn. “They always had a Christmas potluck dinner, and he always put the angel on the top of the tree. I don’t know who is going to do it this year.”
Handy is survived by his wife, Edna; four daughters, Jacqueline, Jannah, Kenya and Dawn; three grandchildren, Shamar, Kayla and Maya. He was buried at Calverton National Cemetery in Long Island.