Alongside the face mask and social distancing reminders, a new sign of the times arrived at SEPTA’s Suburban Station on Thursday.
Authority officials unveiled a sprawling tribute wall recognizing SEPTA’s frontline workers, which will remain on display for three months. The homage is draped with black-and-white photos of 28 employees across SEPTA’s departments who range from six months to decades of employment with the authority.
“It is an honor to show our appreciation and to honor these specific frontline workers," SEPTA general manager Leslie Richards said, “but they are representing all of our frontline workers."
The employees featured in the Suburban Station tribute “really show the breadth and the diversity” of SEPTA workers, she said. The wall is part of a series, with a new display expected to come to the Frankford or 69th Street Transportation Center early next year.
While this wall is temporary, SEPTA intends to install a permanent tribute to frontline workers in the future, spokesperson Andrew Busch said.
“The idea was just to have something that everybody could take in,” Busch said.
Transportation employees joined the ranks of the country’s essential workers as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened across the nation. Not unlike grocery-store cashiers or health-care workers, transportation employees risked exposure to the coronavirus, knowing their roles were vital in keeping the country running.
SEPTA has had 365 confirmed employee COVID-19 cases, though nearly 290 have returned to work. Eight employees across the authority have died as a result of COVID-19 complications: Mbassa Bessike, Ted Nixon, Phil Williams, Michael Holt, Michael Hill, Yolanda Woodberry, Steve McFadden, and Terrance Burton. All were veterans of the authority, with their years of service ranging from 17 to more than 30 in positions that included mechanic, bus operator, fueler, and Regional Rail conductor.
Richards notified employees of the authority’s eighth employee COVID-related death in a message sent Tuesday.
The workers whose likenesses are included on the tribute wall attended Thursday’s event, smiling behind face masks and taking photos with their enlarged portraits.
Garry Deans' picture is adjacent to the display’s giant message: “Thank you to SEPTA’s frontline heroes!”
Since he joined SEPTA 25 years ago, Deans, a station manager, said it’s seemed as if he’s "never stepped back from any challenge that SEPTA had.” His family pressed him to stay home as COVID-19 raged, but he chose to go to work.
“I know I was very needed," said Deans, 63. "I was worried about my health, but I still came on in every day. I’m just going to keep on marching.”