"Johnny would befriend anybody, and anything"
Family and friends of murdered teen recall a gentle heart and a winning personality.
Johnny McCabe, as family and friends knew him, was a boy who loved life.
His sister, Roberta Donovan, remembers him in the garage at all hours, constantly fiddling with lawnmower parts, playing with mechanical odds and ends, or working to fix up his mini-bike. The garage was a second home to the teenaged boy.
“If you looked at his fingernails they were embedded, embedded with oil and dirt from working on engines in the garage,” she said, “He was a boy who liked to get into things, tinkering with his hands."
Donovan said she remembered Johnny spending time in the bathroom on the evening of the Knights of Columbus dance in September, 1969, washing the oil and dirt from his hands, using his father’s aftershave to freshen up.
“I remember him in the bathroom for like an hour, just like a girl, showering and doing his hair,” she said.
Unfortunately, Johnny’s was a life that ended far too soon. McCabe was murdered after the Knights of Columbus dance, left for dead in a vacant lot on Maple Avenue in Lowell.
Three men, Walter Shelley, Mike Ferreira, and Edward Brown, have been charged with counts ranging from manslaughter to murder, to perjury, stemming from the 1969 crime. During an interrogation by police in March, Brown claimed McCabe was being “taught a lesson” by the boys because they thought he was flirting with Marla Shiner, the girlfriend of Walter Shelley.
Over the years, as friends and classmates grew up and moved on, they clung to the memories they had of the Tewksbury teen. Though only 15 at the time of his death, McCabe left the legacy of one who had lived a full life.
“Johnny would befriend anybody, and anything...that’s why we had tadpoles, frogs,” said Donovan. “My mother said that there was a bird in the neighborhood that used to sit on John’s shoulder.” Donovan thinks this is the case because Johnny was both trusting and trustworthy.
A Facebook page entitled "In Memory of John J. McCabe" is full of anecdotes about the young boy, remembrances from school, pictures of Johnny on his mini bike, or smiling holding the goose that he had rescued from ice in the winter.
“I can't say enough of how much I thought of this through the years,” Craig Dougherty, a childhood neighbor of the McCabe family, wrote below the picture of the young Johnny hugging the goose to his chest.
Carolanne Donovan, the daughter of Roberta, set up the Facebook page in Johnny’s memory before work one day. Immediately people joined to offer stories and words of encouragement to the family that had waited 41 years for a break in their son’s case.
Roberta Donovan said she was surprised by the amount of support and the number of people who joined in celebration of John’s life.
“It was just ... out of the blue that people kept popping up,” she said. “I was like, 'wow, it’s grown so quick.'”
Maggie Coffey was one of the names that popped up. She was supposed to go with Johnny McCabe to the Knight’s of Columbus dance. Coffey said that Johnny’s confidence made an impression upon her, especially on the occasion that he asked her to be his date.
“He stood face to face with me and never faltered, stuttered, or looked away shyly as most boys in that circumstance might,” she said.
Roberta Donovan described her brother as “Mr. Personal.” Coffey agrees that this trait endeared him to many that knew him.
“It seems (we) were all likewise enthralled with him because of his personality,” she said.
Dougherty lived next door to Johnny, and according to his own description, “followed him like a shadow.” Roberta Donovan said that she remembered Dougherty tagging along on Johnny’s paper route.
“He kind of thought of Johnny probably as his older brother,” she said.
Dougherty said on the Facebook page that as an adolescent, Johnny McCabe was his “ideal.”
“To me, he was the coolest kid around,” he wrote. He also wrote in the Topix posting about McCabe that he looked up to Johnny and that he always felt he had a “promising life.”
“I had envisioned and (expected) only the greatest in life for him,” he wrote.
Joanne Sullivan Smith said she remembered Johnny simply for his role as a brother among two sisters, a role that included light-hearted pestering, something that made his death all the more difficult.
“That’s perhaps why it was so shocking and horrific when we learned the devastating news that fateful Saturday in September – he embodied the harmless, yet ever so inquisitive little brother.” She went on to say that when John’s life was taken, “innocence was taken from us that day as well.”
Throughout the legal process involving those charged in McCabe’s murder, Dougherty and other friends have kept close to the McCabe family, stopping in, offering hugs and stories: whatever support is needed at the time. Dougherty visited Johnny McCabe’s gravesite with the McCabe family at Easter this year, something he said he was “honored” to do.
To Coffey, it is no surprise that so many remember McCabe and work to keep his memory alive.
“John himself inspired that quality of friendship and it was his friends who kept his memory and this case alive,” said Maggie Coffey.
To Coffey, and to many more, Johnny McCabe will be etched in their minds as an “all-American boy”--blue eyes, face covered in freckles, shock of red hair--and for his personality to match.
“He was a young man who had the sense of self that we all wanted to have at that age,” said Coffey.
The first stanza written by Robert Poulin, a neighbor to the McCabes in the 1960’s and 70’s, sums up the lasting effect Johnny has had on his friends.
“Young John your memory has stayed with so many,
Who are we to judge God’s call.
To have lived so short a time but to touch so many,
Now come the days for us to recall.”
Though Johnny McCabe may no longer be with his family and friends, his memory remains. His personality, energy, and love of life echo through memories of his life and stories that are shared.