Julia Welty was one month old when her father was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She never knew him but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t tried to honor his memory since that tragic day 17 years ago. “I think about it every day,” the senior at Rye Neck High School in Mamaroneck, New York says. “But it has made me think about how I can help people. I want to be somebody and do something I love.”
Julia’s father, Timothy Matthew Welty, was one of the 2,996 people who died on 9/11. A firefighter with squad 288 in Queens, Timothy was only 34 when he died, leaving behind his widow, Delia, his mother, Adele, his father, William (Bill), three siblings and his two young children, Julia and Jake who was three years old at the time.
Jake may have faint memories of his father whereas Julia relies on other people’s recollections. From their stories and experiences, she knows he was a good man. “He always wanted to help people,” she says. “He loved his family and wanted to save people.”
Julia says on the day of the attacks her dad was supposed to pick her brother up from school. And even though Julia and her family’s lives would change forever when her dad decided to go help, she’s still proud of him. “If he were here, I would tell him I’m proud of him,” she says. “It changed my life, but I understand why he made the choice he did.”
As Julia understands it, her dad didn’t necessarily plan on becoming a firefighter, but it was a noble profession that allowed him to help others, which is what he always wanted to do.
Timothy, who had always been extremely athletic, became a firefighter in his late 20s. He loved sports, especially water skiing and hockey, and although Julia didn’t inherit her father’s athleticism, when she watches a hockey game, she always thinks of her dad. He was also very smart, which was apparent to family members at a young age.
According to the New York Times, when Timothy was 15, he bought a junk car and fixed the brakes by taking them apart and putting them back together. “I go into the garage and he’s got the car up on jacks and all the pieces lying around,” his father says. “He had a kind of intelligence that I don’t have.”
And his widow, Delia, says that he was a philosopher who was always looking at things from a different perspective — especially when it came to couples having disagreements. “We’d hear the guy’s side but not the girl’s and I’d form an opinion,’’ she says. “Tim would always say, ‘Well, wait, we should hear the other side.’ He taught me to see everything from a different angle.”
As I talk to Julia on the eve before her last first day of high school, she tells me there are “so many more things” that remind her of him. “My brother and I look just like him,” she says. “We have the same smile.” But even aside from her physical features, she says just thinking about what he would say or do has also become a huge part of her decision making, especially now as she thinks about college and her future, because he would always do the right thing.
“Every day I think about what I can do to make him proud of me,” she says. “I know I’m not perfect but going into senior year, I’m focused on what I want to do with my life. I don’t want to be in an environment where I’m not happy, so I know that whatever I do, I want to make him proud.”
Julia is still narrowing down her university options. She’s looking at Delaware, Maryland, Boston University, Syracuse and Penn State as possible colleges.
While she doesn’t know right now what school colors she will be wearing this time next year, she knows she wants to be a criminal psychologist so she can look at people’s lives before they commit a crime — a dream that she says was “definitely” impacted by her dad’s death in 9/11.
The biggest impact of growing up without her biological father is the compassion she feels for others — part of this stemming from her time spent at America’s Camp, a camp for children who lost a parent or sibling on 9/11. Julia attended the camp from ages seven to 12. “There were other kids there who were going through the same pain,” she says. “It was a large support group and I still have strong relationships from my time there.”
Julia and her family, which now includes a stepdad and a little brother from her mom’s second marriage, also have a strong relationship with other members of her dad’s firehouse. Every year, for the anniversary of 9/11, they visit the Queens firehouse with two or three other families and share stories and catch up.
These stories have helped Julia fill in the gaps, create her own memories and develop her own opinions. In the context of today’s political landscape, Julia defines patriotism as an inclusionary tasks and mission. “Patriotism is wanting to keep people safe — not just your country or your family but everyone.”
Julia misses her father, but realizes the loss brings a greater sense of appreciation and gratitude for her family — never taking the people she loves for granted. “I make sure my family knows I love them,” she says. “People have regrets, that’s not to say I don’t have any, but you never know the last time you may see someone.”
Most importantly, Julia tries not to focus on the negative of a life gone too soon from an event that changed the course of history and changed countless lives, like Julia’s personally. “I think about how different my life would have been if he didn’t die. I wouldn’t have my little brother,” she says. “I think about the good things that came out of it. He did what he thought he had to do and people’s lives were saved.”
Julia knows she wouldn’t be where she is today if things had gone differently. “Anger and sadness come from feelings of abandonment. He wasn’t on duty so it didn’t have to happen but it’s okay because everything happens for a reason,” she says. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today, and I like who I am.”
And Julia thinks her dad would too. “If he were here, he would tell me he’s proud of me and don’t be afraid to leave home and go to school,” she says. “He would tell me to embrace new things and new opportunities that are coming. Do what I love and push through the challenges. He would tell me to make myself happy, but make other people happy too.”
All photos courtesy of Julia Welty.
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