A haunting feeling at the law enforcement memorial

By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 12:27 AM

Every year, Natalie Zanin goes to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial at Judiciary Square to do a rubbing of one of the 19,000 names engraved on the gray marble walls.

"I've been rubbing Leslie Coffelt's name for about 10 years," said Natalie, a tour guide. "I always do it before the tour season starts just so I can really feel that I'm telling the story properly."

The story is this: Leslie William Coffelt was a White House police officer assigned to guard Blair House on Nov. 1, 1950. Blair House is across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, and while the executive mansion was being renovated that year, it was where President Harry S. Truman lived. Coffelt was outside Blair House when two men came up and started shooting.

They were Puerto Rican separatists intent on kidnapping or assassinating the president. Coffelt was one of several officers who returned fire. He was one of several officers hit by gunfire. He was the only one to die that day.

Natalie runs a tour company called Historic Strolls, and this time of year one of her most popular outings is a ghost tour. She's heard stories of a spectral man seen standing near the gaslight that now burns in front of Blair House, a location that she says is where Coffelt stood that fateful day. Could it be him? Once, when the tour fell on Nov. 1, an actress Natalie had hired said she saw a curtain inside Blair House pulled open by an invisible hand. The ghost of Truman?

"Anything is possible," Natalie said.

Every year she goes to the police memorial and does a rubbing of Coffelt's name. "I don't show it to people," she said. "I just keep it in my purse. It's kind of like a talisman to me. This year, I go to rub it, and I step back for a second and I see the other names. It was just a very strange feeling. How could I not have seen this before?"

What she saw were the two names engraved right after Coffelt's on Panel 32-W: A.M. Blair and John H. House.

Blair House.

It's not a coincidence, said Steve Groeninger, the memorial's communications director. But it is not something the memorial advertises. I've never seen a reference to it before, though I was aware that an officer named John Kennedy, killed in 1922, is memorialized next to J.D. Tippit, the Dallas police officer killed on Nov. 22, 1963, by Lee Harvey Oswald.

Who were these two men forever linked to Officer Coffelt? A.M. Blair was a detective with the Greenville, S.C., police department, killed in 1919 while raiding a dice game. John House was a patrol officer in St. Joseph, Mo., who was accidentally shot by a fellow officer during a domestic disturbance call in 1922.

I have a hunch there may be other connections on the walls. Of course, what all the men and women memorialized there have in common is the job they died doing, a hard job, an important job, a necessary job.

In the cards

Garry Jaffe reads my column from Chicago. After last week's mention of the Washington Shopping Plate, Garry wrote to say the Windy City had a similar Addressograph Plate credit card. It was good at five stores on State Street: Marshall Field, Carson Pirie Scott, Mandel Bros., the Fair and the Hub.

"Only Carson's is still in business, but the Loop store is closed," Garry wrote. "Field's is now Macy's." He added: "Here's the worst part: My mom had one, and we threw it out after the stores went to individual plastic ones. The card is a valuable collectible, as it's considered to be the second most valuable collectible credit card. It's worth at least $500!"

Everyone knows not to throw away old baseball cards. Who knew you had to think twice before ditching old credit cards, too?

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