Hero squares

At 1,225 Boston corners, someone who fell in battle is memorialized. This is one such story.

Email|Print| Text size + By Ric Kahn
Globe Staff / November 11, 2007

Suheil Campbell Zayas combed her hair down, put some makeup on. She wore jeans, a T-shirt, and sneakers.

Just the way her husband, Edgardo, liked to see her, she remembers thinking.

Campbell Zayas got into her car mid-morning and drove 10 minutes from one sliver of Dorchester to another, from her home near Four Corners, to Adams Street where it meets Rozella, by Pope's Hill.

There, she pointed the nose of her Pontiac G6 down the hill, got out of the car, leaned against the passenger door, and looked up.

From a stark black sign, 2 1/4-inch gold lettering proclaimed this street corner to all who pass it: CPL EDGARDO "GALDY" ZAYAS SQUARE.

It is one of more than 1,200 "hero squares" memorializing veterans that have been erected across the city over decades, and to the public it will always stand as a symbol of this soldier.

But on this particular day, Campbell Zayas wanted to be alone with the husband she called Babe. It was Aug. 26, 2007, the first anniversary of the day he was killed by a makeshift bomb in Baghdad.

He was 29.

As she rested on her car near Edgardo's boyhood home at Adams and Rozella, Campbell Zayas says, she saw his grinning face break out of the clear sky above. And then she heard his playful, "I'm-a-playah" voice chirp inside her head: "Oh baby, look at that. They've got a street named after me. See, I'm so cute, I've got a street named after me. Oh, where's your street? Where's your street?"

Campbell Zayas managed to bust a smile through her tears, she recalls, and drove back home. As she walked inside, the phone rang. It was a friend who wanted to talk, and life returned to normal.

Though it never really can.

"It's painful," Campbell Zayas, 31, says of losing her husband and the father to their two young children.

For those who take note of it, events like today's allow them to follow through on President Bush's Veterans Day 2007 proclamation encouraging "all Americans to recognize the valor and sacrifice of our veterans through ceremonies and prayers."

Campbell Zayas says she will likely trek to the Cape today to be near her husband's grave at the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne.

But after all the pomp and circumstance of a national holiday reverts to the normal hush, family members in Boston say they cherish that, when the need strikes, they can visit their loved ones any time at all at their hero squares.

Campbell Zayas says some of her sorrow gets soothed by the pride she feels in the presence of Edgardo's Dorchester shrine.

And so she'll announce to her two children, Alexander, 8, and Alexa, 5: "Let's go see daddy's street."

The naming of hero squares, city officials say, dates back at least to the people's mayor and consummate pol, James Michael Curley. Following the end of World War II, Curley recognized the value of sacred streetcorners, and in a 1946 memo to the City Council he announced the formation of a "Committee Memorializing Veterans" to help handle the task.

Today, city officials say, there are some 1,225 hero squares in Boston, five of them honoring service members killed in action in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The groundwork for Edgardo Zayas's roadside remembrance was laid at his wake in the weeks following his death.

Ed Crowley, longtime clerk of the veteran-influenced Dorchester Day Parade Committee, remembers expressing his condolences to the Zayas family, giving them room to grieve, and saying he'd be back in touch.

Months later, he and another commitee member visited the Adams Street apartment of Edgardo's parents, Victor and Gloria, and Crowley told them this about their son: "There is a way to have him remembered in the neighborhood, and it will always be there."

The family settled on a location, and it was available: the junction of Adams and Rozella, just about 150 steps from their home.

This was the corner, according to family, where Edgardo performed hijinks on his trick bike. Where he dashed over the curbs to play ball at the nearby Adams/King Playground, after watching sports on TV and saluting when the national anthem was played. Where he and Suheil walked together to the nursing home at which they both worked, and first met as teens; hand-in-hand, Edgardo always on the outside to protect Suheil from traffic and the elements.

This past April, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution offered by Dorchester City Councilor Maureen Feeney to pay tribute to Army Corporal Edgardo Zayas with a hero square at that spot.

On June 2, Mayor Thomas Menino helped dedicate the site. In remarks prepared for that day, Menino said: "Edgardo fought and died defending this country we all love. He served with honor and dignity and his sacrifices will never be forgotten. We can all look to Edgardo as an example of what courage is all about.

"Because of his heroic service, Edgardo received many prestigious awards, including two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star Medal.

"We are all very grateful for Edgardo's bravery and sacrifice. I'm proud that we have created this lasting tribute to Edgardo, so that future generations will always know how special he was."

Campbell Zayas says the chance to spend quiet time with Edgardo in the neighborhood brings more peace to her than during hectic, organized gatherings on Veterans or Memorial Day.

Those occasions, she says, spark splintered flashbacks of the day she discovered her husband had died: Two men parked in the driveway. An American flag on the license plate.

Before a word was spoken, she started screaming, and later crumpled to her knees, crying: "Why?"

These days, Campbell Zayas says she is still eaten up by guilt for finally consenting to her husband's wishes that he join the military.

For years, she says, he bugged her about it with the same persistence he used to get her to date him after they first got to know each other at the nursing home, where he worked in the kitchen and she was a nursing assistant.

He told her he wanted to defend his country, and could better provide for his family by serving in the armed forces than by piecing together multiple jobs, including one at Wal-Mart.

When his lobbying continued into 2004, Zayas Campbell says she started asking herself, "Maybe I'm holding him back," and finally relented.

Now, when she hears one of Edgardo's favorite reggae songs come on, she says she can easily lose it - but keeps from falling apart by thinking of her children.

Other times, it's no use. The kids will pad into her bedroom at night and say, "I miss my daddy." Then, they'll all start to cry, and fall asleep together in a heap on the bed.

Eight-year-old Alexander says he feels like he's with his father when he visits his perch.

When he passes by in the car, he says, he clasps his hands together and prays: "Dear, Lord. Take care of my sister, me, and my mother. Please send your angels to help me. I miss my dad very much."

Edgardo's father, Victor Zayas, says he does not dare miss a chance to be at his son's enshrinement in the city.

"Every day I go," says Zayas, 54, in broken English. "I never forget him."

The elder Zayas says he longs for the boy he described as a ball of fun, who would bound into the house and rub his papi's head, and dance around with his mother.

Eddie Zayas, 33, says that after his brother was killed, his father told him, "Edgardo's in a better place. He doesn't have to be suffering like we are any more."

Today, Victor Zayas's weight is up, his mood is down. A week ago Friday was a typically rough day.

He and his wife went out to eat Mexican food: rice, fish, avocados.

Then they realized those were some of Edgardo's favorite dishes, and they both started to cry.

Later, he was at the local clinic getting a flu shot. The setting reminded him of the day last year that he was at the doctor's office and Edgardo called.

Because he was talking to the doctor, Victor told his son to call him back later that night.

The conversation was brief, unfulfilled.

It turned out to be their last.

Thinking of that made Victor Zayas weep again Friday at the clinic.

Later that afternoon, he took his dog, Suzie, for a walk.

As it does every day, their route brought Victor Zayas to Edgardo's hero square.

There the father stopped, made the sign of the cross, said a prayer - "God bless you, my boy" - and blew a kiss to his lost son.

Ric Kahn can be reached at

Veterans' Day around the region

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