NEW YORK – Reminders of John Rigo’s brilliant life are everywhere in Elizabeth (Betsy) Meredith Rigo’s home in the Carnegie Hill neighborhood on the Upper East Side.
There is a box full of photos, letters and clippings, and she returns to it several times to retrieve one more item that she wants to share about her husband.
There is a bookcase lined with biographies and history books, including many written by or about Winston Churchill, who John greatly admired and loved to quote and imitate.
There is an American flag folded into a triangle, encased in glass and hanging from a living room wall as a gift from the City of New York.
There is Cody, a Himalayan cat, who was an anniversary gift from John to Betsy in 2001.
There is a humidor, still filled with John’s precious cigars, and Betsy graciously offers two Cuban Churchills to her visitors. “Really, take one,” she insists. “Maybe they still are good.” (And they are.)
And there is a nearly foot-high cross with a brief inscription under the base: “World Trade Center Tower #1. Never forget. Sept. 11, 2001.”
One’s attention is drawn to the cross – a haunting yet powerfully reassuring symbol forged from the steel remains of the collapsed north tower – time and time again as Betsy talks about the 1975 St. Thomas alumnus who died during the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
“I adored John,” Betsy says. “We were devoted to each other, and we had many of the same interests. I feel fortunate that I had him as a husband. He was my best friend, and he was the best person I have ever known.”
Similar words are found in tributes to John and spoken by family members and friends. They smile and laugh when they talk about John, and they cannot tell enough stories about this generous man and his keen intellect, steadfast integrity and witty sense of humor.
John Matthews Rigo was born May 15, 1953, in New Jersey and grew up with a brother and two sisters. He attended La Salle Military Academy on Long Island. Nobody is exactly sure why he enrolled at St. Thomas, then a men’s college that drew only a handful of students from the East Coast, but apparently a family friend who lived in the Twin Cities recommended St. Thomas to him.
He majored in history and political science, lived in Ireland Hall and was a member of the All College Council and the College Republicans. He also loved a party. “He told me he wasn’t a particularly good student because he was having too much fun,” Betsy said, “but he knew how to apply himself when he had to because he had such discipline.” A St. Thomas friend, Jim Lundquist ’76, called John “a really smart guy but not cerebral, and he always had that big, bright smile.”
John was smart enough to get into law school in San Diego, and while there he continued his courtship of Elaine Nederostek, a College of St. Catherine student who he met when he was a junior and she a sophomore. They were married in June 1976 at St. Catherine and settled in San Diego. He left law school and became a claims representative for National Steel and Ship Building Co., beginning to develop what would be a career interest in worker’s compensation.
“We had a lot in common, with the same interests in history and politics,” Elaine said. “He had a very good sense of humor, and people found his East Coast accent charming. He was a guy everybody could talk to – and he was fun. He had this devilish side – not a ‘bad boy,’ but he loved to play games and tricks on people.”
John and Elaine divorced in 1984. He later moved to New York and eventually joined Johnson and Higgins, an insurance brokerage, which Marsh & McLennan acquired in 1997. One of his closest associates was Joan Schaeffer, who worked on the firm’s IBM account with John for seven years.
“John was the consummate insurance claims consultant,” Joan said in her eulogy at his memorial service. “Professional, honest, ethical, analytical, smart, and fun to work with. … a straight shooter who got the job done, no matter how difficult or messy. John never backed down from a conflict, but always tried to find a way to resolve issues fairly.”
He could come across “as tough to get along with,” Joan said in an interview, “but he really was a teddy bear; a lovable curmudgeon.” He enjoyed a spirited debate, “and when something controversial was being discussed, he loved to get into the thick of it. He’d say, ‘This is really good sport!’”
Those same qualities attracted Betsy to John. A native of Princeton, N.J., she earned a degree in literature and journalism from Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and worked as an editor and in production for several companies, including Scientific American for more than 15 years, before becoming a freelance editor. She met John briefly in 1987 but they didn’t have their first date until three years later.
“He walked into the room and I thought to myself, ‘This is the guy I’m going to marry,’” she said. Later that summer, as they sat in a Manhattan park near the East River, he told her, “I think I’m in love with you,” and he went on to say that on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of his commitment, “I’m a 10. What about you?” She paused: “I didn’t want to give him a swelled head, so I said, ‘7.9.’”
They married in January 1992 and settled just a few blocks east of Central Park, where they would take Nessie, their Scottish terrier, for evening walks and talk about issues large and small. They reveled in each other’s company and enjoyed vacations to Martha’s Vineyard, where her aunt lived, and London, Paris and Rome.
“In my experience, there is a profound shift in the way you view the world,” Betsy told the congregation at his memorial service as she reflected about their marriage. “It becomes a much bigger world, a much better world, because your loved one is in it. You notice things more. I could look at the New York skyline, knowing that there are millions of people here, and think, that’s home, because John is there.”
John had myriad interests and hobbies. He was learned about Churchill and could quote him at length. He liked opera and was a Frank Sinatra aficionado. He studied French after visiting Paris and admired what Betsy calls her “lousy French.” He wanted to learn to play the piano because Betsy did. He knew every answer to questions in the Baby Boomers edition of Trivial Pursuit. He never had children, and to no one’s surprise he was quite the doting uncle.
He put in long hours at Marsh & McLennan and became a senior vice president. He often traveled for work, with golf clubs in tow whenever possible. Joan recalled one trip in which John got out of New York before it was hit by a blizzard and found time to play a round at Spanish Bay on the Monterey Peninsula. The 12-handicapper called Dean Barnett, a golfing buddy at Marsh, and as he lined up a putt “he gave the phone to his caddie to verify the location of the call. When John came back on the phone, he made the comment, ‘Having a little snow in New York, are you, Dino?’”
John usually could be found on the golf course – or on a sailboat or on his walks with Betsy – with a cigar in hand. He simply loved a good cigar – and especially a Cuban cigar.
“He’d buy Cuban cigars at Heathrow (a London airport) duty free,” Betsy said in her eulogy. “One time he packed the contraband in his luggage, and the customs agents impounded it. Another time, when we left London and flew back to the U.S., we had a plan. He stuffed one box of cigars in his laptop’s case and handed over the other box to me, where I put it in my large carry-on handbag. I said, ‘John, this is the only time I’m going to be your mule.’”
John’s friends say that as committed as he was to Marsh and as much as he favored his hobbies, his most-rewarding time was spent with Betsy. He taught her how to golf and sail, and in August 2001 they talked about buying a sailboat. “Summer is getting a little bit long in the tooth,” she recalled him saying. “Let’s do it next year.”
A few days later, John got up at 5:15 a.m., as he usually did, dressed quietly without waking Betsy and walked to Lexington Avenue, where he took the subway to Central Park South and the nearby New York Athletic Club. He swam and then took the subway to Marsh & McLennan, which occupied floors 93-100 in the north tower of the World Trade Center.
John’s office was on the east side of the 100th floor, with a window that overlooked Long Island. “He liked being up there, that high, where he could look around,” said his sister, Jan Dudley, who worked for American Express in midtown Manhattan. “Everybody who worked there loved it.”
At 7:59 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 left Boston, followed 15 minutes later by United Airlines Flight 175. At 8:46, Flight 11 crashed into the 93rd floor of the north tower, with the impact spreading to the 99th floor, and 17 minutes later Flight 175 hit a similar area on the south tower. The towers collapsed shortly thereafter, the south at 9:59 and the north at 10:28.
“A friend with an office that faces south to the World Trade Center called me and said, ‘Have you turned on the TV?’ I hadn’t; I usually didn’t have it on at that time,” Betsy said. “So I turned it on. The trade center was on fire. At that point, I didn’t know what to think. I hadn’t heard from John, and cell phones weren’t as big of a deal then as they are today, so it’s not like I expected a call.”
A Marsh employee called her and wanted to know if John had gone to work. He actually had talked about taking that day off to golf, but had changed those plans. She hoped that maybe he had lingered at the athletic club or had stopped to get coffee before entering his building.
Calls continued, but there was no sign of John. Jan showed up at Betsy’s place in the late afternoon, having walked several miles from the American Express offices at Sixth Avenue and 46th Street because the subways and trains had been shut down.
Betsy waited for days and weeks and months, but John’s body never was found.
She thought back to their final conversations, one of which had occurred just two days before 9/11: “I remember saying to him, ‘Our world is going to be very different than our fathers’ world because we’re not going to be fighting nation-states, but terrorists,’ and he agreed.”
She recalled how he had awakened one morning the summer before 9/11 and told her, “I had the weirdest dream. I was in a building (not the World Trade Center) and an airplane came into it.”
John’s memorial service was held April 20, 2002, in the Chapel of the Beloved Disciple at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest, just a few blocks from the Rigo home. Betsy, Joan and Ted, John’s brother who now is in Iraq with the Army Reserves, gave eulogies, and the Rev. Philippa Turner gave the homily.
The minister presented Betsy with the steel cross. She had been a chaplain at Ground Zero and knew Steve Divino, a Port Authority police officer who also was a blacksmith and had made crosses for families of the 37 Port Authority officers who died in 9/11.
“I didn’t know John well, but I have come to know Betsy well since that day,” she said. “He was such a lovely man – thoughtful, quiet, reflective. … A gentleman in every sense of the word.”
Marsh & McLennan lost 295 employees on 9/11. The company’s headquarters today are in the midtown Manhattan building where John’s sister worked for American Express, and outside stands a glass memorial with the names and signatures of John and 294 co-workers, and these words:
“Our lost colleagues are, above all, our adored children and parents, husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, your cherished relatives and friends.”
John’s name also is on the list of victims at Ground Zero, where there is a Tribute WTC Visitor Center. Construction continues on a National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which will include two pools set within the original footprints of the towers, with 30-foot waterfalls cascading down the sides.
Betsy is the first to admit she has struggled in the aftermath of 9/11, and she has found different ways to deal with her grief. She joined a support group and has befriended others who lost loved ones. She once visited a psychic who knew John had died in 9/11 but had little other information about them, “and the things she said would knock your socks off.” John told Betsy through the psychic not to worry about the sailboat they hadn’t purchased, and he asked why she had stopped making homemade soups and why she no longer did the New York Times crossword puzzle.
Betsy also has struck up a friendship with Elaine, John’s first wife. Elaine and her second husband, Bill Corcoran, planned a New York trip in July 2004, and she called Betsy to see if the couples might meet for coffee. Elaine didn’t reach Betsy right away, “but when I did, there was pure silence on the other end of the line, and she said, ‘You don’t know, do you?’ And that’s when it all clicked in. I knew he had been at Marsh, but I never had made the connection.”
The two women eventually met, and Elaine went to New York last fall for a 9/11 anniversary event to show support for Betsy. “John must think our friendship is kind of funny, that the two women he loved are now friends,” Elaine said. “And all because of his death.”
Betsy keeps busy with contract work as a freelance editor and does some of her own writing, and she always finds time to walk in Central Park, which she likes to call “my backyard.” It’s an easy stroll west on 90th Street, past the Church of the Heavenly Rest and into the park, where you work your way along the east side of the Reservoir to the northeast corner of the Great Lawn and a series of park benches adorned with small plaques. One reads:
“Beloved JMR – Devoted husband, son, brother, uncle, friend and colleague. You are the best in all of us. 1953-September 11, 2001.”
At John’s service, Joan concluded her remarks by saying his friends always would treasure his memory and thus keep his spirit alive. “For me,” she said, “there is not a day that goes by that I don’t reach for the phone to call John. When John would call me back, he would always say, ‘John Rigo here.’ Well, now, John Rigo will be here … in my heart, forever.”
And at the end of her eulogy, Betsy surmised that while she didn’t know where he was at that very moment, “I imagine John in this way: He’s playing golf with his dad. He’s lighting up a stogie after a long drive off the tee. He has a French caddy. At the 19th, he has a beer and plays the piano. …
“I can still say to him, ‘We have had a wonderful life together, haven’t we?’ And I hear him say, ‘Yes, Betsy, we certainly have. Our time together was short – far too short – but I am thankful that we have had this time together.’”
Rigo Scholarship Fund established
St.Thomas and Betsy Meredith Rigo have established a scholarship for undergraduate students who major in history or political science.
Contributions can be sent to the John M. Rigo Scholarship Fund, Mail No. DEV, University of St. Thomas, 2115 Summit Ave., St. Paul, MN 55105. For more information, call Joe Plante at (651) 962-6972 or email@example.com.
Betsy also encourages contributions to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum under construction in New York. Visit www.national911memorial.org or call (877) WTC-GIVE.
Read more from St. Thomas Magazine.