Four years ago, Teresa Zapotochny met Bob Ballentine when he walked into the office where she worked, the Philadelphia Hand Center.
Ballentine is recording secretary of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, and Zapotochny is the great-niece of Thomas J. Dowling, a police officer shot to death in 1912.
The two got to talking about the hero plaque program coordinated by the FOP and attorney James J. Binns.
The plaque was approved, and Zapotochny wanted to time its unveiling to the 100th anniversary of her great-uncle’s death.
Last week, a dozen members of the Dowling family gathered at the intersection of Fifth and Vine streets for the plaque unveiling. The group included Trish Dowling, a Holme Circle resident and Philadelphia police officer assigned to the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center.
“His memory has stayed alive in our hearts,” Zapotochny said.
Retired Chief Inspector James Tiano emceed the event. Among those in attendance were Binns, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, District Attorney Seth Williams, City Councilmen Dennis O’Brien and Bill Greenlee and an aide to U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr.
Joseph Laragione was the citizen sponsor of the plaque.
Tiano and Ramsey presented roses and the City of Philadelphia flag to members of the Dowling family.
Binns explained that the program is in its 11th year. There have been 105 Philadelphia police officers honored and 253 overall.
Zapotochny recalled her great-uncle as one of six children of Irish immigrants Richard Dowling and Catherine McCaffrey, and she added the Irish translations of “Thank you” and “God’s blessing on you” to all assembled.
Dowling was single and just shy of his 24th birthday when he died on June 26, 1912. He had less than a year with the department, having joined on July 11, 1911. A nephew, Richard Dowling, was an instructor at the Philadelphia Police Academy. He was unable to attend last week’s ceremony.
The area of Fifth and Vine was a lot different a century ago. There was no Benjamin Franklin Bridge back then, with rowhomes dominating the landscape.
As for the police department, there were no radios to summon help if needed.
The old Philadelphia Record chronicled the day Dowling died.
Dowling worked in what was then the 7th Police District and was visiting pawnshops to serve notice of stolen goods.
A clerk told the officer that a 17-year-old customer, Homer C. Wiggins, of Wilmington, Del., was wanted on suspicion of robbery. The teenager was there to dispose of a valuable unset diamond.
Dowling grabbed Wiggins by the left shoulder to lead him away, but the youth pulled out a gun and shot him in the arm slightly below the shoulder. The bullet took its course through the lungs and chest walls.
“I’m shot, Ed,” he told a friend who was waiting for him outside the shop.
Wiggins repeatedly kicked the officer in the ribs and chest before fleeing. He ran up Fifth Street to Callowhill Street, cursing and yelling that he would shoot anyone who tried to stop him.
Nonetheless, police officers and a crowd of citizens chased him for six blocks. He ran into a burned-out building, but a bullet jammed in his gun. He threw away the gun, which turned out to be stolen.
The gunman ran away, but a policeman threw his club at him, hitting him in the head and knocking him to the ground. He fought back, but was subdued.
“It will kill my mother when she hears of this. She always thought I was all right, and this will break her heart,” he told police.
Dowling, who lived in the area, was admitted to the old Roosevelt Hospital and given last rites by the pastor of St. Augustine Catholic Church. He died soon after.
Earlier in the day, Binns dedicated a plaque for Eugene “Chick” Lucas, a police officer in Conshohocken who was shot to death in 1917 as he was serving a warrant.
The following day, he dedicated a plaque for Pennsylvania State Trooper John J. Brown in West Chester. Brown died in the winter of 1985 when he was hit by a car as he investigated an accident on an icy stretch of Route 1 in Chester County.
The next plaque dedication will take place on July 25. It will memorialize Frank Magro, a police officer who died in 1977 when his motorcycle skidded on trolley tracks at 31st Street and Girard Avenue and he was hit by a car. ••
Anyone interested in sponsoring a hero plaque can contact James Binns at 215-275-3000.EndFragment