By Paul Leighton
BEVERLY — On Sept. 12, 1976, a crowd of more than 100 people, including Mayor James Vitale, watched as Lois Healey stepped up on a folding chair and hung a wreath on a sign marking the newly dedicated Frederick D. Healey Jr. Square.
The moment was meant to secure forever the legacy of Healey, who served in three wars and was commended for his bravery under fire during the Korean War.
So you can imagine Lois Healey's surprise this month when she learned that the city had held a ceremony on Veterans Day to rededicate Healey Square — not for her husband, but in honor of a Civil War mariner from Beverly named Joseph E. Healey.
"I turned to my daughter with my mouth open," she said.
The mistake was the product of a well-intentioned effort by city officials to repair 15 signs marking city squares in memory of Beverly veterans. Instead of simply ordering new signs, Mike Collins, commissioner of public services and engineering, wanted to research the history of each veteran and tell their stories, some of which were missing or incomplete.
Healey Square, at the corner of Cabot and Judson streets next to the Cabot Cinema, was a perfect candidate. Its sign said only "Healey Square," with no first name or initials and no reference to the war in which the veteran served.
Collins and Veterans' Agent Jerry Guilebbe checked a list of Beverly veterans killed in action on plaques at the former Memorial Middle School and discovered that a "Joseph E. Healey" had died in the Civil War. Collins and Guilebbe concluded that Healey Square must have been named for him.
On Veterans Day, with Mayor Bill Scanlon and Joseph Healey's great-great-great-granddaughter among the small gathering, the city rededicated the square — or at least thought it was rededicating the square — in honor of Joseph Healey. A new sign at the location reads, "Joseph E. Healey. Navy Seaman, KIA, June 1862."
Lois Healey was stunned by the mistake. She still lives in Beverly, as does one of her daughters, as well as Frederick's two sisters and several nieces and nephews.
But Lois Healey said she is not upset at anyone. She called Collins a "lovely, lovely man" and said she felt bad for Heather Rojo, Joseph Healey's great-great-great-granddaughter, who came down from Londonderry, N.H., for the Veterans Day ceremony.
"There are no hard feelings on my end," Lois Healey said. "It's just a mistake that happened."
Lois Healey said the error never would have occurred if the original Healey Square sign still stood. That sign said "F.D. Healey Square," referencing her husband's initials. Lois Healey said she asked the city to replace the sign sometime in the 1990s because it had been damaged by the weather. The replacement sign said only "Healey Square."
Collins, the public works commissioner, said he was "heartbroken" when he learned of the mistake. He has already begun the process of replacing the Joseph Healey Square sign with a new Frederick Healey Square sign, including details of his service.
Like many of his friends, Frederick Healey quit Beverly High School to volunteer in World War II. In Korea, he served as a Navy chief hospital corpsman and received a letter of commendation after being wounded in action.
According to the citation, his Marine infantry company was under heavy artillery fire when Healey "unhesitatingly moved into the exposed area and administered aid to the many wounded Marines. With complete disregard for his own personal safety, he remained in the fire-swept zone and continued rendering aid to the men until each had been evacuated to the rear."
Frederick Healey went on to serve in the Vietnam War. When he came home, he served as commander of American Legion Post 331 and worked as a custodian at Ayers Ryal Side School. He died of lung cancer in 1974, at age 49.
In a way, Collins said, the mistake has had a positive impact because it brought to light the histories of two Beverly veterans. Rojo was unaware, until Collins told her, that her great-great-great-grandfather had been killed during the Civil War.
Collins said the city plans to dedicate a square in Joseph Healey's honor near Bartlett Street, where he lived.
"The whole episode makes the case as to why these stories need to be told," Collins said.
Collins has given Lois Healey the Healey Square sign that was taken down this month. Lois Healey said she's not sure if she wants another ceremony in honor of her husband, but if there is one, she would like Rojo to be there.
Rojo also said she is not upset with the city's error. She works as a genealogist and said it's not unusual for mistakes to be made.
"You can add a whole branch to your family tree and later find out you've got to trim it off," she said. "It's really interesting that they found out who the real Healey is."
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or by email at email@example.com.