The paralyzed cop miraculously survived for the next three decades, living to see the birth of his son and become a global voice for peace and forgiveness across an extraordinary and unexpected life.
McDonald died Tuesday at the age of 59 after suffering a heart attack at his Long Island home on Friday.
“No one could have predicted that Steven would touch so many people, in New York and around the world,” Police Commissioner James O’Neill said.
“Like so many cops, Steven joined the NYPD to make a difference in people's lives. And he accomplished that every day. He is a model for each of us as we go about our daily lives. He will be greatly missed, and will always remain a part of our family.”
A parade of city officials past and present — including Mayor de Blasio, O’Neill and former NYPD top cops Bill Bratton and Ray Kelly — visited McDonald at North Shore University Hospital where he had been receiving treatment.
Hundreds of cops were lined up outside the emergency room Tuesday afternoon awaiting the removal of McDonald’s body.
“Steven McDonald was the most courageous and forgiving man I have ever known,” PBA President Patrick Lynch said.
“Despite the tremendous pain in his life, both physical and emotional, his concern for his fellow police officers and for the people of New York City never wavered...He was a true American hero.”
McDonald emerged as an even bigger hero from his specially-equipped wheelchair than during his time walking a city beat.
His unlikely second act brought the indefatigable McDonald together with President George W. Bush, Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela and Mayors Bloomberg and Koch.
Though unable to walk or hug his family, he traveled on missions of peace to Northern Ireland, Bosnia and the Middle East.
His son Conor, born months after the Central Park shooting, even spent one night beneath the watchful eye of babysitter Bruce Springsteen.
McDonald sat for interviews with Barbara Walters and David Letterman, never varying from his personal gospel of faith and forgiveness.
The officer practiced what he preached: McDonald delivered a stunning public absolution of his shooter on the day of his son’s baptism.
“My simple understanding is that God has asked me to be a witness to do his will in this world,” McDonald told the Daily News before the 25th anniversary of the shooting.
“And I think that's my life.”
McDonald, the father and son of a city cop, barely dodged death in the July 26, 1986, attack where 15-year-old Shavod (Buddha) Jones blasted him three times inside the north end of the Midtown oasis.
The third-generation cop was the third of eight kids from an Irish-American clan. He was just 20 months on the job when his life was transformed during a routine shift on an overcast summer day.
McDonald approached three suspicious-looking teens in the park on the afternoon of July 12, 1986. His new wife Patti Ann — pregnant with their son — was visiting her sister in Pennsylvania.
As the young cop moved in to frisk the trio, Jones pulled a .22-caliber handgun and fired three times.
McDonald — shot in the neck, wrist and face — was instantly paralyzed. His prognosis was dire at best, hopeless at worse.
“He’s dying,” said one of the first doctors to see the shattered cop at Metropolitan Hospital. “He’s not going to make it.”
The officer, before losing consciousness, recalled seeing a vision of his wife as a simple prayer filled his head: “God, don’t let me die.”
It was far more violent than the apostle Paul’s moment on the road to Damascus — but the shooting transformed McDonald into a messenger of God’s word.
The mission began March 1, 1987, when the quadriplegic officer stunned fellow cops and cynical New Yorkers with a conciliatory statement about Jones.
“I forgive him, and hope that he can find peace and purpose in his life,” McDonald said on the day of son Conor’s christening.
McDonald was soon preaching peace and forgiveness at hot spots around the world. FDNY chaplain Rev. Mychal Judge, later the first victim of the 9/11 terrorist attack, accompanied McDonald to Northern Ireland.
The soft-spoken cop addressed the Republican National Convention in 1996, and the New York Rangers honored their hardest working player each year with the “Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award.”
He campaigned with Mayor Bloomberg against illegal handguns, and co-authored “The Steven McDonald Story” with his wife about their life after the shooting.
No less an authority than Cardinal John O’Connor, who became a cherished friend, hailed McDonald for doing the work of Jesus Christ.
It was the cardinal’s comparison of Christ and the cop that helped convince the paralyzed McDonald to follow his new path.
“He didn't save the world through teaching and preaching and miracles,” the cardinal once told the cop of Jesus. “He made it possible when he was lying motionless on the cross.”
When the rock star attention disappeared, McDonald soldiered on. Riding in a specially equipped van, he traveled widely to address kids born years after the shooting, riding his motorized wheelchair into countless high school gyms.
As he spoke, the machine that allowed him to breathe sounded a steady background rhythm: Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh.
McDonald kept a pace that would wear on anybody — speaking at elementary schools and police precincts, mourning with his brothers in blue at cop funerals, attending the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
His singular life lacked just one major wish: McDonald never fulfilled his hope of enlisting the teen who shot him as a sidekick in his calls for non-violence.
McDonald spoke with Jones while the young man was imprisoned, and they exchanged letters. But the shooter, released in 1995, died in a motorcycle wreck just days later.
The paralyzed policeman later recalled how his family was crushed by news of the death.
McDonald remained on the NYPD active roster long after the shooting, earning a promotion to detective first-grade just before Christmas 2003.
His grandfather was a decorated detective once honored by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia for busting a Bronx robbery ring — and a survivor of a gunshot wound while breaking up a barroom heist in 1936.
McDonald’s father joined the force in 1951, taking his first-born son for rides in his radio car and planting a seed for Steven’s future.
His own son, Conor, joined the NYPD on July 6, 2010, nearly 24 years to the day of his father’s Central Park shooting. The younger McDonald was promoted to detective sergeant in September 2016, and his father attended the ceremony.
“I have to salute him now,” joked Steven McDonald. “He’s always made us very proud.”
|© Provided by New York Daily News Steven McDonald watches son get promoted. Conor McDonald promoted to Detective. He is the son of Detective Steven McDonald who was paralyzed on the job. New York City Police Department Promotion…|
Remembering Steven McDonald on Twitter
Steven McDonald, a New York City police officer who was paralyzed from the neck down after he was shot in Central Park in 1986, was an inspiration to many after he forgave his assailant, 15-year-old Shavod Jones.
He made many public appearances, speaking, though haltingly and with the help of a respirator, about the importance of forgiveness.
After he died on Tuesday, many took to Twitter to memorialize him.
Steven McDonald, NYPD detective turned global peace messenger after getting shot, dies
A hero NYPD detective, known for forgiving a gunman who left him paralyzed, has died days after suffering a heart attack. He was 59.
Steven McDonald died shortly after 1 p.m. Tuesday at North Shore University Hospital, where he’d been admitted Friday, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said.
McDonald was appointed to the NYPD on July 16, 1984.
CBS New York reports he was investigating a bicycle robbery in Central Park on July 12, 1986 when he was shot three times. Doctors told his wife that he wouldn’t live through the afternoon.
He was left quadriplegic and had to breathe on a ventilator.
He publicly forgave the teen shooter, Shavod Jones, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In the years after the shooting, McDonald became one of the world’s foremost pilgrims for peace. In 1995 he met with Pope John Paul II. That same year he was promoted to detective. He spoke at two Republican conventions.
In 2004, he was promoted to detective first grade.
McDonald took his message of forgiveness to Israel, Northern Ireland and Bosnia.
“No one could have predicted that Steven would touch so many people, in New York and around the world,” said Commissioner O’Neill. “Like so many cops, Steven joined the NYPD to make a difference in people’s lives. And he accomplished that every day. He is a model for each of us as we go about our daily lives. He will be greatly missed, and will always remain a part of our family.”
Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, called McDonald “a true American hero.”
“Steven McDonald was the most courageous and forgiving man I have ever known,” Lynch said in a statement. “Despite the tremendous pain in his life, both physical and emotional, his concern for his fellow police officers and for the people of New York City never wavered. Since that fateful day in 1986, Steven dedicated his life to fighting hate and encouraging forgiveness through his actions. He was a powerful force for all that is good and is an inspiration to all of us. His, was a life well lived. We join his family, a true New York City police family, his friends and fellow officers in prayer and mourning the loss of a truly special man.”
Numerous New York politicians, public figures, and entities took to social media to pay tribute to McDonald.
NYPD Det. Steven McDonald was a great friend & man of enormous courage & spirit. My prayers are w Patty Anne/Connor. I mourn his death. RIP
— Rep. Pete King (@RepPeteKing) January 10, 2017
The teen that shot McDonald, and served nine years behind bars, was killed in a motorcycle accident just days after he was released from prison.
Last year, McDonald saw his NYPD officer son promoted to detective.
McDonald is survived by his wife, Patti Ann, and his son, Conor.