Joe Bradley has been making his own original buttons for more than 15 years since he was the scoutmaster for the Boy Scout troop in St. Lawrence Church.
"I saw an advertisement in the Boy Scout magazine for a button-making machine, how you could make buttons for special events," said Bradley, a resident of Weehawken for more than 50 years. "When I retired from being a truck driver, I bought a better machine so I could make better buttons."
Since then, the 76-year-old has become the button man of Weehawken, making them for senior citizen activities and school kids. His buttons, with original artwork of the World War II planned memorial in Washington enabled seventh graders to raise more than $1,000 for the construction of the memorial.
"I make buttons for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, for the senior citizens, for the different holidays," Bradley explained. "I love to give buttons to the kids, because they love them. And it's a nice hobby for me. If I didn't like doing it, I wouldn't do it."
On the fateful morning of Sept. 11, Bradley had just returned to his home in the Shades section of Weehawken after dropping his wife off at work in Hoboken.
"My son-in-law told me to turn on the TV, that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center," Bradley said. "While I was looking at it, I saw the second plane hit."
Bradley then quickly grabbed his camera and headed to Hamilton Plaza to watch the unfolding tragedy live.
"It was mobbed up there," Bradley said. "People were crying. And then I began taking pictures."
Bradley photographed the majestic Twin Towers crumbling to the ground in precise shot-by-shot frames that are amazing, especially for a point-and-shoot camera.
"It was the most dramatic thing I've ever done in my life," said Bradley, a decorated veteran of World War II. "It's something that you'll never forget."
When the pictures were developed, Bradley made a few buttons using the image from one of them, which he distributed to people he eats lunch with daily at the Senior Nutritional Center on Highwood Avenue.
"I made about 35 buttons or so at first," Bradley said. "I also gave some to my four daughters and made some to give out at candlelight service up at Hamilton Plaza. Believe me, when I went up there with my camera, it had nothing to do with making buttons. It just sort of happened."
What transpired next was even more startling.
"The mayor called and asked for 300 buttons," Bradley said. "My daughter [Kathleen Stahl, a secretary at Webster School] said that she needed a couple hundred. I knew it was going to cost me a lot of money, but if people wanted them, I was going to make them."
Bradley's daughters all agreed that if he made enough buttons and actually sold them, then they could raise money to donate to the North Hudson Emergency Services Fund, the group of local firefighters, police and EMS workers who raised more than $500,000 to help the victims.
"In all the years I've been making buttons, I never sold one," Bradley said. "But I talked to my daughters and we decided that if we're going to sell them, then we will donate the money to the fund. We have a family of police and fire people."
Bradley's brother was a Weehawken fire captain. His grandson, Brian Stahl, is currently a member of the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue. His son-in-law, George Stahl, is a recently retired Weehawken police officer and there are two other family members who are police officers.
"It was only natural for us to go in that direction," Bradley said. "Once we heard the North Hudson Regional were collecting money, we decided to give the money to them."
So Bradley and his daughters, Patricia Fahy, who lives in Freehold; Ann, who lives in North Bergen; and Jeannie, who is a Weehawken school bus driver, all went to work in the button brigade to make 4,000 of the accessories.
"My daughter Jean and I printed and pressed most of the buttons," Bradley said. "We made a lot of them. I could usually punch out 75 to 100 buttons in an hour. Everyone worked. But the people just kept wanting more buttons."
Bradley's daughters, Stahl and Fahy, sold many buttons in their neighborhoods, and Bradley only took for himself the money for the cost to make the buttons, approximately $700 or so. The rest went to the fund.
Fahy found a charitable business, which she wishes to remain anonymous, that matched the total of buttons sold and donated that sum as well to the fund.
The resulting total was $7,000 raised for the victims.
"The button actually turned out to be one of my best buttons," Bradley said. "It was a beautiful button of a horrible event."
Brian McGorty, the president of the North Hudson Regional Fire Officers Association, who helped organize the fund drive, was astounded when he received the checks from Bradley.
"It was a wonderful effort," McGorty said. "Not only the effort that was made, but the contribution. It really was a selfless thing that Joe did. It's an awful lot of money raised from buttons and certainly one of the biggest single donations we received. Tom Brokaw called the World War II vets 'the greatest generation.' Here's proof of that."
Bradley was amazed at what had been accomplished.
"It really was a spur of the moment thing that sort of took off," Bradley said. "I really feel good, because all the work went to a good cause. It makes me feel good that we helped the members of our own community. And it was good for me, because my daughters all got involved. It makes me feel young."