American Flight 11 cruised over the Pioneer Valley at 29,000 feet on that placid Sept. 11 morning about half an hour before it wrought its horror. But it was in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks that three UMass Amherst alumni stepped up to deliver leadership and healing.
One month after 9/11, Jim Kallstrom, a 1966 graduate and retired senior FBI official, took a leave from his private sector job to become New York State’s director of public safety. In his role, he headed up counterterrorism planning and operations for the state that had literally and figuratively become ground zero for the nation’s response to the terror attacks.
In 2004, even before graduating from UMass, Peter Trovato worked out of his dorm room to found the Massachusetts Soldiers Legacy Fund (mslfund.org) The nonprofit organization offers a minimum of $40,000 in scholarships to each child of every US service member from Massachusetts who was killed during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed 9/11. Trovato, a onetime UMass hockey captain who graduated in 2005, was moved to act when, as an intern in a state representative’s office, he read article after article about fallen service members who left behind young children.
Yet no UMass alum — and perhaps no other American — is more personally associated with the nation’s response to 9/11 than Ken Feinberg. As the special master for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, Feinberg oversaw the distribution of nearly $7 billion to more than 5,000 people who were injured or lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks. He held the all-consuming post for nearly three years, drawing no salary and personally conducting 931 hearings with survivors and families. Given a blank check from the US Treasury and remarkable latitude by the Congress, Feinberg was asked to deliver Solomonic rulings as he put different price tags on the lives of Americans.
Feinberg came to the job with a sterling reputation as a high-profile mediator, having handled knotty legal cases, from setting payouts for veterans injured by Agent Orange to determining the fair market value of the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination. His cachet as the nation’s most sought-after mediator only increased after he completed his 9/11 assignment. Name a story that has dominated the headlines in recent years — the BP oil spill, the Aurora movie theater massacre, the Sandusky abuse cases at Penn State — and you’ll often find Feinberg had been called in to deliver a fair solution.
Feinberg credits much of his success to the education he received on the flagship campus in Amherst, where the so-so student from Brockton blossomed into a star — in the classroom, on the stage, and at the podium (delivering the student address during his 1967 commencement). “UMass is where I really applied myself,” he says.
In a fitting move, this undergraduate history major who went on to make history himself has donated his lifetime professional archives to UMass Amherst’s W.E.B. Du Bois Library.