NEW YORK - He was, he always insisted, just a regular guy doing a job.
He gave no thought to the box of medals awarded to him by the City of New York. George Howard knew he was lucky. Many men pass through life tolerating their jobs. Howard was blessed with loving his.
In the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Howard rescued an elevator packed with children - on his day off. He wasn't scheduled to work Sept. 11 either. And no one asked him to. He just went. And died for it. An ordinary guy doing an extraordinary job.
Days later, Arlene Howard gave her son's most prized possession - shield number 1012 of the Port Authority Police Department - to President George W. Bush, who carries it as a reminder, he says, that his work is just beginning.
The president held up Howard's shiny silver badge during a televised speech before Congress last week. On Monday, in the Rose Garden, he cited it again.
''The American people have got to understand that when I held up that badge, I meant it. This war on terrorism is my primary focus,'' Bush said, announcing plans to choke channels of terrorist funding.
Mrs. Howard believes him. She also believes her 44-year-old son wouldn't have liked all this fuss. But when Port Authority officials asked if she'd give George's shield to George W. Bush, she couldn't refuse.
''I told him not to forget everyone who went in there to save people's lives,'' she said Monday.
The Howards buried George last week. His body was found by a detective who saw a gun sticking out of the ruins of the World Trade Center, destroyed in a terrorist attack two weeks ago. The gun was strapped in a holster that was strapped to George's waist. Rescue workers gingerly pulled away a piece of siding and carried him to an ambulance.
Howard had arrived just before the second tower crumbled. When it did, he was killed by the avalanche.
He leaves two sons, Robert, 13, and Christopher, 19. The elder plans to follow his father's career path. The younger isn't so sure.
''I don't know whether he realizes what happened,'' said his grandmother. ''He's going to be lost without his daddy. I don't know how he'll cope after it's over and all these people aren't around.''
George's brother, Patrick, is a New York City police officer. The job of delivering the awful news to their mother fell to him. On the day of the attacks, Patrick went to George's office at John F. Kennedy International Airport to see if his brother had checked in after getting to the site.
He didn't have to ask if George had gone there. He knew his brother. He also knew that if his brother were alive, he would have called his bosses to let them know he was on the job.
''I'm trying to be strong,'' said Mrs. Howard. ''And Patrick is the same as me. But you have your moments and your thoughts and your days.''
George Howard, a 16-year veteran of the department, was a founding member of its elite emergency services division. He also trained firefighters in search and rescue techniques.
When he was awarded the Medal of Valor for rescuing children trapped in the 1993 Trade Center bombing, he brushed it off with humor. ''That's what they pay us for,'' he told a reporter.
His mother was used to hearing that.
''I'd say, 'Well, George, you got this medal.' And he'd say 'Yeah, mom, that's my job.'''
George wanted to be a firefighter when he graduated from high school in suburban Long Island. For some reason his mother never knew, he didn't get into the New York City department.
''So he went to the police department (of the Port Authority) and got a job that was a combination of both. He had a job as a fire instructor and he rescued people,'' she said.
After the president held up her son's badge on national television, Arlene Howard has been deluged with mail. The symbolism of her gesture was not lost on the American public. Law enforcement badges are never retired; they are passed on to family members as cherished symbols.
But she doesn't want it back.
''I want them all to be remembered,'' she said.
And as she looks through the bags of mail that have poured in from all over the country, she wonders who this ''hero'' is that has received such praise.
''All these people are telling me how wonderful he was and to me he just said, 'Oh, that's my job.'''