Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Memorializing a Life and a Tragic Death

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Memorializing a Life and a Tragic Death

Article excerpt

EVERY TOWN has its memories. The happy ones of high school teams that win championships, and local kids who grow up to be movie stars or national political leaders are easy to keep and remember.

But what about the bad memories, those so terrible that they still resonate with pain years later? Where does a town keep them?

Hillsdale is wrestling with that question now.

On an otherwise peaceful suburban afternoon 40 years ago, a 7- year-old Hillsdale girl walked down her block to deliver Girl Scout cookies to a male neighbor. She never returned home.

The neighbor, Joseph McGowan, a 26-year-old chemistry teacher, sexually molested and murdered little Joan D'Alessandro. Her body was found three days later - on Easter - in New York's Harriman State Park. McGowan was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison but could apply for parole.

Joan would have been 48 years old on Sept. 7, and her family has asked Hillsdale to find space for a 3,000-pound monument with a plaque that contains a graphic description of how her life ended in April 1973. The town seems to favor the monument. But it has spent months discussing just how graphic the language should be.

Should "murder" and "molestation" be on the plaque?

That is just one volatile question in the middle of this debate. Another is whether the town, by drawing attention to the tragic death of one child, shortchanges other tragic deaths of other children in Hillsdale - or, indeed, other adults.

And finally there is this uncomfortable fact: The town already has three memorials in Joan's memory -- a grotto at the town's Catholic church, a plaque in the church's school library and a tree in a town park. Is a large monument too much?

Adding to the debate are the Girl Scouts themselves. A spokesman, perhaps all too aware of the Girl Scouts public relations image, recommends that a psychologist should review the language on the proposed monument.

At a recent council meeting, Hillsdale Mayor Max Arnowitz said two residents told him the new monument - the fourth such memorial of some sort to Joan -- would be "overkill."

Whether two residents actually used the word, "overkill," is beside the point. To repeat that word in discussing the murder of a child at a public meeting is insensitive. The D'Alessandro family did not attend the meeting. But when told about the "overkill" description, the family was understandably upset. Who wouldn't be?

"Is it hurtful?" asked Joan's mother, Rosemarie D'Alessandro, who still lives in Hillsdale. "I think it's very hurtful to hear the word, 'overkill.' I found it very disrespectful to Joan's memory and to me."

The "overkill" incident underscores the level of emotion in Hillsdale over how to memorialize Joan D'Alessandro's killing, and whether any lines can easily be drawn. …

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