Gil Ortale could teach you a thing or two in the kitchen.

His humility and laid back Philly swagger disguises the fact he is an expert chef and baker, so much so that one reviewer claimed he held “religious views” on a particular French pastry, but Gil has another expertise that is altogether different, one he’d rather not have. Over the years Gil has acquired the dubious distinction of being a first-hand expert in the life of a 9/11 family. Gil’s brother Peter--a superlative athlete, scholar and business man--was murdered at the World Trade Center on September 11th. He worked on the 82nd floor as a securities broker for the firm Euro Brokers. Peter Ortale was known for being remarkably charismatic, intelligent, and principled, values that inspired Gil’s family to create a high school and college scholarship in his honor that has raised nearly one million dollars. With the tenth anniversary of September 11th approaching I had the privilege to sit down with Gil to discuss the meaning of 9/11 memorials and community service. Gil and I (joined by his girlfriend Nem and his son Shane) sat next to each other at the kitchen table in his South Philadelphia home with two books on September 11th open in front of us. “Today, when I went to yank this stuff out, my God, it got me right in my heart.” Gil motions to a pile of assorted 9/11 books and photos. One book is open to a black and white photo of his sister-in-law. She is waiting in a line with tears streaming down her face while holding a wedding photo of her late husband, Peter. The line she is standing in, Gil explained, led to the armory where she would give a DNA sample in the hopes of identifying her husband’s remains. “Do you want to see something crazy sad?” Gil asks. Gil gets up from the table to retrieve an additional artifact upstairs. When he returns he lays down a memorial from the Philadelphia Inquirer which honored the victims. Gil carefully turns the pages of the now faded newspaper as he looks over the faces of each victim, faces he’s grown to know well in the ten years since the attack. He looks over the images with a fondness usually reserved for high school yearbooks. This trip down memory lane, however, is a more sobering one. As he scans through the photos he mentions the families of the victims. Some of his recollections praise the kindness and support that the families showed him in the years following the attack; other faces bring back to mind the particular circumstances of the victim’s death. Gil turns the last page and closes the newspaper with a tear in his eye. What’s your connection been like with the other families? I was friends with all of those families. I got to know them all; they started participating in all of our events. It was pretty intimate because you share something so unique. It was an intense and very meaningful connection to have. It was hugely useful [and] facilitated by donations from Americans by the Red Cross which should never be lost. It is hugely significant. If you’re on your own, dealing with something like that would make you

crazy. Sad—Crazy–Depressed—Nuts–Angry. Instead, you’ve got people who care about you, donating money, facilitating a professional to take care of that, meeting other people to work through stuff–it’s gigantically significant. Did you go through each of those phases you mentioned? Was it ever difficult dealing with anger? I never got super angry, but on the sadness level, I was at a place in sadness where . . . I don’t even know if sadness is the word. It was just a feeling of animal pain–the most guttural level of anguish where you can’t even believe that loss has occurred and you’re processing it on a really visceral level. It’s just pure raw anguish. That went on for a long time . . . I was pretty destroyed inside. How did you go from such a dark place to wanting to give back to others? You created a really impressive scholarship fund over the last ten years. Part of it is about responding to it in a way that’s healing yet sends the right message. In our family it was hugely disruptive. There were five of us and you lose one . . . you lose one in that way, someone getting murdered. There’s no way to overemphasize the degree of destructiveness. It’s just so shocking but then you take that energy and do something with it. I think that’s how the scholarship was started, it had to do with the idea of turning something horrendous into something positive and something that gives back to other people. After coming to that realization, what do you feel is the role for the scholarship fund and for community service? It’s important to mention that part of the idea behind the scholarship is that Peter himself got a scholarship to William Penn Charter. If it weren’t for that our family wouldn’t have been able to afford it. It enables someone with good ways about them to further their cause. There are rules around the scholarship–you have to be an athlete, a scholar, as well as some of the other values that Peter reflected in his life. The people who have received the scholarships, I’ve heard about them, met many of them, and heard what they have to say. When you read about what they believe in and hear what they’re saying it’s, ‘I got this because this person died, here’s what he believed in, here’s what he did and I have the privilege of carrying that forward–here’s what I’m doing with it’. So that is planting the seed. It just spreads out or creates a ripple effect and you can’t ask for anything more than that. I mean, you can’t bewitch everybody. You have to do something practical and real. Let a person with skills get a gift, help them believe in their ability and then they can transfer the core value of that gift out into the world to create a larger ripple effect. Yeah, the ripple effect seems like a key idea in what your family is doing. What’s your thinking on that? If you see me do something selflessly it makes you ask yourself what it means to you. It flies in the face of any kind of politics, ideology or violence. That was how it all came together, that was our original idea. As a matter of fact, nearly all of the people who were directly involved did something like that. That’s how you respond when you really have a stake in it.

Does serving the community make a sort of safe haven for the memory of your brother away from politics, away from ideology and things like that? For me it’s compartmentalized. Once in a while things will bug me online or on the radio. The other day we heard a radio show with a woman talking about all of the crazy incompetency that facilitated 9/11. She went through all of these things that were so terrible and not once did she mention the factor of how we were as a country at that time. The idea of the generosity and support, the feeling of community between people–that is so crucial. The feeling of community that Gil describes doesn’t come from one man, not even from one family. It comes from people who’ve never met Gil or Peter telling their stories and supporting their scholarship. It comes from knowing that no matter how dark or confusing the path we walk, we don’t have to walk it alone. To leave a digital remembrance for Peter Ortale click here []. The Peter K. Ortale Fund will be holding a silent auction in New York on Friday, September 9th, 2011 to raise scholarship funds for students at William Penn Charter high school and Duke University. Click here [] to learn more.

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