By Mike Lang
Joe Szczerba had a plan when he went to work Sept. 15, said Oblate Father John Fisher. On his way home, he would stop at his brother Ed’s house and finalize where everyone would park two days later at Lincoln Financial Field in South Philadelphia, where Ed’s son, Andrew, would play football for Penn State against Temple.
Andrew Szczerba caught two passes that day for the Nittany Lions, but his uncle was not there to see him. In fact, Andrew played with a heavy heart after learning early the morning of Sept. 16 that his uncle, New Castle County Police Lt. Joseph Szczerba, 44, was killed after being stabbed in the neck during an altercation in Penn Acres, a neighborhood in Wilmington Manor. He was treated on the scene by fellow officers and emergency personnel but was pronounced dead after being transported to Christiana Hospital.
Szczerba was posthumously promoted to lieutenant and awarded the Medal of Honor by New Castle County.
Police have charged David A. Salasky Jr., 32, of Wilmington, with first-degree murder and possession of a deadly weapon. He is being held without bail.
Father Fisher delivered the homily at Szczerba’s funeral Mass Sept. 23 at the Chase Center on the Riverfront in Wilmington, where an estimated 6,000 people paid their respects at a viewing before the service. Father Fisher, a professor in the department of education at De Sales University and former principal of Salesianum School, said Szczerba also had a backup plan, a master plan “for which Joe worked passionately, which no one could destroy or snuff out.
“He has reached his destiny, the final consummation; now, he is being loved and embraced by his creator whom he imaged so well and clearly in his short years here on Earth,” the priest said.
Bishop Malooly celebrated the funeral Mass, with some 20 other priests concelebrating. It was attended by police officers and other first responders from every corner of Delaware and several states. The officers and members of the public lined up in a steady rain, waiting to pay their respects. Inside, pictures of memorable moments from Szczerba’s life were displayed on monitors, and a county police honor guard flanked the casket of their fallen brother.
Corpus Christi, Salesianum alum
The late officer attended Corpus Christi School in Elsmere and was a 1985 graduate of Salesianum, where his family’s roots run deep. His brothers Edward and Peter graduated in 1973 and 1981, respectively, and four nephews — Edward, Philip and Andrew Szczerba and Jacob Anderson — also are alumni. His sister-in-law, Florence, is the school receptionist.
On the afternoon of Sept. 16, the Salesianum community gathered to honor Szczerba with a Scripture reading, prayer and the lowering of the American flag to half-staff. In addition to the student body and members of the faculty, some of whom had taught Szczerba, a contingent of police officers from New Castle County and the city of Wilmington, along with emergency medical services personnel, were on hand. Several members of Szczerba’s family also attended.
A student, senior Oliver Bahnsen, played “Taps,” and Wilmington police Sgt. Walter Ferris followed with “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes as the flag was lowered. Salesianum’s principal, Oblate Father Chris Beretta, said the school wanted to honor one of its graduates with the service.
“It was a tremendous honor for us to provide a gathering place” for the first responders, Father Beretta said.
He added that the students, although they did not know Szczerba, appreciated his service to the community and his connection to Salesianum.
“The kids understand the brotherhood they talk about here extends beyond the students who are here now,” Father Beretta said.
The Salesianum football team played Dover High School that night in its home opener. Szczerba, a four-year player during his high school days and second-team all-state offensive lineman as a senior, was honored at the team’s pregame Mass “both as a Salesian brother and a football player,” head coach Bill DiNardo said. “This has hit us all very, very hard.”
A moment of silence was held before the game at Baynard Stadium.
Longtime Salesianum biology teacher Phil Vavala said the faculty was affected by the news because so many of them knew the fallen officer and because his sister-in-law is on the staff. He said the tragedy is a reminder of the potential hazards police officers face every day on the job.
“Their poor wives [and husbands] don’t know if they’re coming home at night,” he said.
In his homily, Father Fisher said Szczerba’s wife, Kathy, never intended to marry a police officer, “but Joe was her prince and she wanted what he wanted.” The priest described Szczerba as devout in his faith, humble, “a fountain of mercy for all in need.”
The family, he said, was left speechless by the outpouring of support in Delaware and beyond. “Left the Szczerba family speechless,” Father Fisher said emphatically. “Have you ever seen them at a sporting event? No doubt, you’ve heard them.
“With all respect to our vice-president, it seems that Delaware had another Joe, universally loved and wonderfully admired.”
Szczerba was eulogized by county police chief Michael McGowan, his brothers Stephen and Edward, and his wife. McGowan noted that in a force of 364 officers, only 12 are lieutenants. He praised Szczerba as perfectly suited for a job where “a sympathetic ear and confident voice are often better tools than a badge and a weapon.”
Kathy Szczerba was the last to speak, addressing the assembly in a calm, strong voice. She said she supported her husband’s dream of being a police officer even though “we knew a day like last week could come.”
Although their life together was cut short, she said, “I would have rather had 23 years of something wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.”
In addition to his widow and brothers Edward, Stephen and Peter, Szczerba is survived by his mother, Jean “Ray” Szczerba; brother Gerald; sisters Karen Campbell and Nancy Anderson; 11 nieces and nephews; and four great-nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his father, Edward Sr.
An animal lover, he helped get feral cats in his neighborhood neutered and released. In lieu of flowers, contributions in his name may be made to: Faithful Friends, 12 Germay Drive, Wilmington, DE 19804; Delaware Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, attention Hilary Taylor, 113 Barksdale Professional Center, Newark, DE 19711; Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research Inc., 110 Possum Hollow Road, Newark, DE 19713; or the Sunday Breakfast Mission, 110 N. Poplar St., Wilmington, DE 19801.