On Wednesday, MIT cancelled classes for the fourth time this academic year. This time, however, it was not for a natural disaster or terror threat, but for a memorial — a celebration of the life of Officer Sean A. Collier.
Collier was a 27-year-old MIT police officer who had been on the force for fifteen months before he was slain in cold blood by one of the Tsarnaev brothers, suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, last Thursday night.
For his memorial, 15,000 chairs had been laid out on Briggs Field between the hours of 11 p.m. Tuesday and 3 a.m. Wednesday. By noon Wednesday, most were filled, around three-fifths by police officers — a sea of all shades of blue, green, and the occasional red worn proudly by officers from as close as Waltham and Medford, or from nearby states like Maine and New Hampshire, and from as far away as Australia and San Diego, according to Andrew Farrell ’12.
The other part of the audience was filled with people from all reaches of the MIT community that had come to pay respects to Collier.
The event opened with performances from the MIT Symphony Orchestra (MITSO), and pipe bands from the Irish American Police Officers Association (IAPOA) and Westford. After the opening, which included placing Sean’s coffin at the foot of the stage, Israel Ruiz SM ’01, MIT’s Executive VP and Treasurer, spoke of the “darkening of the brightness” that had been Sean Collier’s presence on campus.
MIT Police Chief John Difava recounted the events of last Thursday night. He was pulling out of Stata around 9:30 p.m. and saw a cruiser idling, which turned out to be Collier. “I asked him what was going on, and he gave me that famous grin,” said DiFava, “and said ‘just making sure everybody’s behaving, sir.’” An hour later, Collier would be shot.
DiFava also spoke about all of Collier’s qualities, stories of which have been pouring from the community this week: He was a gentle and caring man, and police work was his calling. Sean wanted to be a police officer from the age of 7, said DiFava, and paid his way through the police academy with no promise of employment, waiting for a department with an opening. “That lucky department would be us.”
He went on to say that Collier would regularly go beyond his responsibilities, requesting to work at a soup kitchen to “maybe deal with issues before they became problems,” and earning students’ trust by going hiking with the MIT Outing Club (MITOC), learning swing dancing, and being the same person in uniform that he was out of uniform.
Collier’s brother Rob Rogers talked about the memories of Collier at home. The memories seemed to truly echo that the Sean Collier everyone at MIT saw was the same Sean Collier who would blast country music — particularly his favorite, the Zac Brown Band — in his F150 truck.
“If Sean was here, what would he think, ‘Are you kidding me?’ He would love this,” Rogers said. “You’ve got sirens, flashing lights, formations, people saluting, bagpipes, taps, the American flag — He would have loved it.”
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke about Collier’s spirit of service, which was “infused in his life.”
“That protection, that strength, which came only from giving himself fully, it is that same spirit we saw in firefighters, police officers, EMS, and guard coordinating the first response and turning peril into protection,” said Warren, “that same spirit we saw in hospitals and support staff who worked through the day, and worked through the night, and then worked through the day again.”
Those sentiments were echoed by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who reminded the crowd to remember Collier not for the sacrifice he made, but for the man he was. Biden, who spoke of Boston’s unyielding calmness and conviction, sent a message across to all of the officers present in the spirit of Collier’s values.
“[When joining the force], you all had that inexplicable sense of duty and that gross underestimation of your value and how important you are. Every day when you pin on that shield, the members of your family … know what anything could happen, yet they stand with you, they have the courage to support you,” Biden said.
Truly, it seemed like the Institute had pulled out all the stops to commemorate the life of a person who, in the words of MIT’s President Rafael Reif, “didn’t just have a job at MIT, he had a life at MIT.”
Many people present, like MIT Libraries engineer Sands A. Fish, didn’t know Collier but came out to pay their respects.
Many students decided to attend the event after classes were cancelled for the day.
Without a doubt, it seemed that, like DiFava said, Collier was the same person in and out of uniform.
A video feed of event was streamed across the entire campus, and small community gatherings took place all across campus following the memorial. In Steinbrenner Stadium, there was a large reception with enough food for 12,000 people, mostly the attending police officers.
“It was very moving and touching,” said Officer Bishop from NY Suffolk County PD. “I’m sorry it was necessary.”
DiFava said that Collier’s mission was to get the trust of the students — and he succeeded. “He was accepted into [the students’] hearts,” said DiFava, “His love of life and that mischievous grin.”
“To honor Sean’s memory,” said Reif in the memorial, “let us sustain that same spirit of friendliness, kindness, and good will. Let us honor his memory and his life by keeping his example.” That example could be as small as the simple actions that made him so well-known around campus — as Rogers put it, “He has taught me that a smile to a stranger, a simple hello, an outreached hand, can ultimately change how people treat each other.”
MIT has inducted him as an honorary member of the MIT Alumni Association and has established a Collier Medal and associated fund, to be awarded to individuals who demonstrate Collier’s values.