In 1993, I graduated high school and moved into a dorm at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I was a fairly quiet kid from a small town who knew absolutely nobody on my floor. One of the first people I met was my next door neighbor, Paul Eckna. Where I had traveled about 45 minutes to get to school, Paul had come from Garden City, NY with hopes of making it onto the University of Nebraska football team (he never talked about it, but apparently he was quite the player in high school). Paul was probably 6 foot 3 and a muscular 275 pounds – he looked every bit of his preferred nickname, “Moose”.
I think the only thing larger than Moose’s physical appearance was his personality. He had a huge smile and a laugh that filled a room, and he used both often. In Nebraska, where people speak fairly plainly, his New Yawk accent stuck out. However, his friendliness, kindness, and warmth were as midwestern as they come. Moose would go out of his way to help a friend and made sure everybody – even the geeky kid next door – felt welcome in his presence.
My favorite memories of Moose are the little things and the small moments. I had a tiny loveseat in my dorm room – probably five feet wide. Quite often Moose would curl his giant body into it and suck his thumb while watching TV or a movie. He wanted to buy a specific University of Tennessee baseball hat. Nobody in Lincoln carried it, so for several months, he discussed driving from Lincoln to Knoxville, TN simply to purchase the hat. At one point, he got in his car to make the drive, but if I recall correctly, was stopped due to car trouble before leaving town.
After my freshman year, we both moved off campus, and I lost track of Moose. I ran into him a couple of times at parties, but our paths didn’t cross that often. There was one Football Saturday, when I saw him out in the neighborhood. He was dressed up in a Batman costume and my former roommate (who was 5 foot 9 and 170 pounds) was dressed up as Robin. The image of those two still makes me smile. I’m pretty sure that is the last time I ever saw him.
On a Tuesday in September 2001, I was working doing phone support for financial software. That morning one of my co-workers said that his wife had called and an airplane had hit the World Trade Center. The company I worked for was pretty strict – no internet access, no TVs in the breakrooms, etc. – so we didn’t know what was going on, except for what we were hearing from family and friends over the phone. Little by little, we heard of the second plane crash at WTC, the crash at the Pentagon, and the collapsing of the twin towers.
At lunch, I drove home and watched the TV with my jaw on the floor. By that time, they had grounded all flights, so when I was walking back into work I glanced up at a clear blue sky with zero air traffic or contrails. Everything about that day was absolutely surreal.
I don’t remember exactly when I learned that Moose was working for Cantor Fitzgerald (in International Equities) on that Tuesday, nor do I remember who I heard it from. All I remember is the news that he was presumed dead at age 28. I have since learned that he was on the 104th floor of the North tower. I like to think that in those last few, chaotic minutes he was calm, positive, and putting others above himself. Those that knew him would probably agree.
In the last few years, work has taken me to the Hartford, CT airport several times. Right after you go through security they have a United States flag with the names of all of the men, women, and children who lost their lives 10 years ago. I always made it a point to find Paul Robert Eckna on that flag, touch it with my finger, and say a silent prayer of peace and remembrance for a wonderful man who was taken from this Earth far too soon.
This morning, I found a very lovely memorial site for Paul, and I hope you will take a few minutes to remember him and the others who died with him.