On April 18, 2013, MIT Police Officer Sean Collier was on duty when he was killed, allegedly by the suspected Boston Marathon bombers. Sean’s sister, Jennifer Lemmerman, agreed to write about her brother for Boston.com.
The date was Wednesday, October 6, 2010. It was a drizzly autumn morning. I walked from my office in Downtown Crossing to Faneuil Hall. I entered the Great Hall and settled in next to my family on one of the wooden chairs that lined the floor facing the stage. As the ceremony began, I watched with pride as my brother, Sean, and twenty-six other aspiring police officers who had very quickly become some of his closest friends – including MBTA Police Officer Dic Donohue – graduated as the twenty-fifth Municipal Police Officers’ Class of the MBTA Transit Police Academy. (Donohue was shot and injured during the April 19 shootout with the suspected bombers.)
I shot a shaky cell phone video as Sean marched across the stage and I smiled as our mother pinned the shiny badge to his crisp uniform. I was honored to witness my little brother fulfilling his lifelong dream.
When I agreed to write about Sean’s life as we mark the one-year anniversary of his death, I was almost overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. I have so many treasured memories of him, including that 2010 day when he graduated from the Police Academy.
Some of my memories are serious. Others are silly. Do I want people to know that he had a love of video games, a penchant for iced coffee and impressive skills behind the wheel of a racing go-kart? How could I possibly capture all that he was and all that he meant to us?
Over the past year, some of the best times, for me, have been spent sitting around a table with Sean’s coworkers, mentors, friends, and family, sharing our favorite stories about Sean. I decided that those are the people to help me tell Sean’s story now.
Many things have been said and written over the past year about the kind of police officer Sean was. From the time Sean knew what the job was, he wanted it. It was in his blood. For years, he worked and sacrificed to earn the opportunity to wear the badge. Our brother, Rob Rogers, summed up Sean’s devotion to his job this way, calling Sean “a passionate man who put everything he had into what he loved.”
It wasn’t just our family that saw Sean’s devotion. It was evident to his colleagues that he was something special, always going above and beyond. One of Sean’s first mentors, Deputy Chief Michael Cabral from the Somerville Police Department, recalled Sean’s talent and skill with computers, and how he would use that to help the Somerville Police Department and other officers.
“He would even go to police officers’ houses and set up their personal computers – never accepting a penny,” he said. “All he wanted to do was help people.”
To those friends and family members who knew Sean from the time he was small, it came as no surprise that the qualities that made him a great person would translate into making him a talented police officer.
When I asked Sergeant Cheryl Vossmer of the MIT Police Department what qualities stick out in her mind now when she remembers Sean, she said he was “compassionate, caring, fun-loving, honest, geeky, warm, gentle, and giving.” We had seen these same qualities time and again in Sean as a brother, son, uncle, and friend.
Our sister, Nicole Lynch, recalled the time, not long ago, that Sean pulled his young niece, Kailey, aside to talk to her about her new glasses, which she worried made her look “nerdy”. After a brief, private chat with Uncle Sean, she returned with his glasses case, now hers to keep, and a smile as she wore her new glasses with pride.
“Glasses might seem like a small thing compared to some of the other things he did at work, but he took the time and made a huge difference in Kailey’s life,” Nicole said. “That was Sean.”
Although he took his professional duties and obligations very seriously, it was not all work and no play for Sean – far from it. Many of the stories shared among his friends and family over the past twelve months have been accompanied by more laughter than tears.
Our sister, Jenn Rogers, talked of the time that the family’s three youngest siblings, including Sean, bonded a little too long over margaritas and nearly missed the ship’s departure during a family cruise to Mexico.
Sean’s roommate, Officer Travis Dixon, recalled the day that Sean brought home his new “baby” during one of the year’s more severe snow storms.
“I notice a brand new shiny black Ford F150 with all the windows down, including the sunroof, blasting country music as loud as the speakers would play, coming up the street to our house,” he said. “The smile on Sean’s face was so wide, I didn’t think the truck would be able to contain it.”
Our youngest brother, Andrew, now drives that truck. He remembers Sean every time he gets in it and how, as an adult, Sean had become more than just his older brother. “We truly were great friends,” Andrew said.
The stories we remember of Sean’s life are varied and mean something special to each person telling them. But the themes are common. The easy smile and infectious laugh is something I hear of again and again.
MIT Police Sergeant David O’Connor recalled Sean’s spirit for life, calling him the kind of person he wants to be and hopes his daughter will become.
One of Sean’s friends, Jackie Evans, recalled a brief conversation she had with him over text, just two friends joking around, and said simply, “I laugh at the thought, knowing that even when I want to cry, he can still make me laugh.”
His friend Alea Mehler echoed the sentiment when she wrote: “It didn’t matter if it was a heart to heart or him giving me a hard time, every time we were together, we were laughing.”
In the month’s following my brother’s death, I have been struck by the way that his life has influenced countless people around the country, even more so than his death. Our family, devastated, wanted people to know who Sean was, to understand exactly what was lost that night. So we began to tell his story.
We talked about how, as a toddler, Sean would stop and salute every American flag he came across; how he served as the police officer among his siblings, always so clear on right versus wrong; how, at just six years old, he was so unsettled at the sight of a woman crying alone at a fast food restaurant that he insisted that our mother check on her; how every single life decision he made from the time he was a child was made in the context of his dream to be a police officer.
When I started this process, I asked a few of Sean’s close friends, family members, and colleagues to send me a sentence or two describing a favorite memory of him or one word that they feel describes him best. It says something special about him that the most common conclusion I received back – from an old boss, his aunt, his sister, his close friend – was this: “That’s just Sean. He just wanted to help people.”
It also says something special about him that what I received back was not a sentence or two, or just a word that best describes him. What I received back were pages upon pages of stories that we have all clung to over the past year. These stories have guided our own decisions, lifted us up on the tough days, helped us celebrate Sean’s life and helped fill the gaping hole left by his absence. These stories about Sean have helped us heal. And we share them so that he may live on in our memories of him.