By Paul Leighton
BEVERLY — Heather Wilkinson Rojo stood under the Cabot Cinema marquee that grandly advertised the theater's latest movie yesterday. But on this windy Veterans Day morning, the Beverly native's attention was focused on a much smaller sign just a few feet away.
The black metal sign stood atop a black pole, adorned with a gold leaf star and the inscription, "Joseph E. Healey. Navy Seaman, KIA, June 1862."
"It's just like solving a mystery," Rojo said.
Rojo, who lives in Londonderry, N.H., is a genealogist who has written extensively about the history of her family and her hometown of Beverly. But it wasn't until recently that she learned the corner of Cabot and Judson streets is known as Healey Square in honor of her great-great-great grandfather.
Rojo got the news from Mike Collins, the city's commissioner of public works and engineering. With help from Veterans Agent Jerry Guilebbe and others, Collins unearthed the story behind Healey Square, tracked down Rojo and invited her and her husband to a small ceremony to re-dedicate the square yesterday.
Collins is hoping to repeat the process with 14 other squares throughout the city that have been named after veterans. The project began seven years ago when the city looked into replacing the deteriorating signs marking such squares.
Instead of simply making a new sign, Collins wanted to know more about the men behind them. Despite past efforts to flesh out their stories, many of them had been lost or forgotten.
Collins said he wants to work with local civic groups like the Boy Scouts and give them the task of piecing together the story of each veteran. Once the information is compiled, the group could solicit donations to replace the sign or to assist veterans' groups.
"The city has the capability to buy all new signs," Collins said. "That would be easy, but that's not the point. I want people to help with the story and to tell it over and over."
Those stories can be compelling. Collins said the city knew virtually nothing about Healey Square, which was marked by a beaten wooden sign that said only, "Healey Square," with no first name and no mention of the conflict in which he died.
Collins and Guilebbe checked plaques at the Memorial Building that list the names of all Beverly veterans who have been killed in wars and found that a "Joseph E. Healey" had died in the Civil War. A further check of records at City Hall showed Healey was killed while serving in the Navy aboard the USS Mound City.
From there, Collins could easily look online for the history of the Union ship, which lost 150 men during the Battle of Saint Charles on the White River in Arkansas in June of 1862. The men were killed when a Confederate rifle round penetrated the stream drum of the ship's boiler, causing a massive steam explosion.
One of the victims was Healey, a mariner who lived on Bartlett Street in Beverly. He was 39, married with children, when he went off to war.
Rojo, who writes a genealogy blog, said she has researched her family back to the 1600s but found little about her great-great-great grandfather. Even though family members had lived in the home on Bartlett Street until the 1940s, Rojo, who lived on Dearborn Avenue as a child, said none of her relatives ever spoke about Healey Square being named for a family member.
During her research, Rojo said she never suspected Healey had served in the Civil War because of his age.
"I was really surprised," she said. "I never heard of the Mound City. I never heard of that battle."
Rojo also learned from Collins that Healey was buried in a family plot in Central Cemetery in Beverly.
"Now I know how he died, what happened," Rojo said. "It's like closure."
Any person or group interested in helping with the Veteran Square Sign Replacement Project can contact Commissioner of Public Services and Engineering Mike Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or by e-mail at email@example.com.