Steven Ercolino's sister remembered the innocent time, back when she was in first grade and her big brother was in sixth. Somehow she managed to get her hands on her brother's yearbook and, testing her penmanship for one of the first times, signed her name over and over on every page.
"I signed it Maria the Grates," Maria Rashford recalled from the lectern Wednesday at the funeral Mass for her brother, who was gunned down Friday near the Empire State Building, by a co-worker nursing a simmering grudge.
"He was so mad at me," Rashford said as laughter swept through the pews of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in White Plains. "He said I didn't even spell grates right."
After that, her older brother signed every birthday card, every text message the same way. "I love you, Steven the Grates," he wrote.
As mourners gathered for their last goodbyes, bittersweet memories of Ercolino, 41, mixed with a pastor's contemplation of the senseless violence, jealousy and hatred that took his life.
"Violence is senseless," said the Rev. Philip Quealy, the pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows. "Violence is evil. We can easily say it comes from a being known as Satan if we wish. Perhaps we have to look deeper into human nature. Maybe we have to look deeper into the human heart and come to recognize that violence is possible at any time in our lives. And why? Because this is a world that often heralds as its savior, me, I, myself."
Jealousy, malice and hatred, Quealy told the mourners, "all tend to well up within our hearts and souls."
Throughout his talk, Quealy never mentioned Ercolino's assailant, Jeffrey Johnson, by name.
Johnson, 58, had worked as a designer at Hazan Imports on West 33rd Street, where Ercolino was a vice president supervising sales. Laid off about a year ago, Johnson blamed Ercolino for his misfortune, co-workers have said.
Johnson shot Ercolino in the head as he walked to work on a sun-dappled morning in midtown Manhattan, near one of the nation's most recognized landmarks. Johnson died moments later, when he drew his .45-caliber pistol a second time and pointed it at two approaching patrolmen. A passerby had followed Johnson, after he shot Ercolino, and pointed him out to the police.
A surveillance camera captured Johnson pointing his gun at the two cops as they tried to get him to surrender.
A Manhattan grand jury continues to probe the actions of the two NYPD officers who fired 16 shots at Johnson, striking nine bystanders. The officers could face assault charges relating to the injuries suffered by the bystanders, but experts on police shootings have told Newsday that is highly unlikely.
Friends said Ercolino offered no clue that he had been enmeshed in a dispute with Johnson.
"One thing about Steve was he wore his emotions on his sleeve," Lance Friedler said before the funeral started.
Friedler is a New City native who met Ercolino in seventh grade and roomed with him in college at SUNY Oneonta, where Ercolino graduated in 1992.
"He never said a word," said Friedler, 42, of Port Washington.
Another longtime friend, Jacqueline Whalen of Centerport, remembered Ercolino for his loving temperament.
"He was amazing," she said. "He was always happy, humble, nice and sweet . . . He will be remembered for the generosity of his heart, just the way he treated people."
Whalen and other mourners filed into the quaint Catholic church with wooden rafters as morning light streamed through stained-glass windows. A spray of white flowers surrounding red roses stood on the altar.
His sister said his preferred wardrobe was "sunglasses, sneakers and a Jets hat."
Wristbands in Jets green were handed out, saying: "Steven Ercolino: You will be remembered."
"We all knew Steven was great but it's comforting to know that you did too," Rashford said.
She drew more laughter when she recalled how her brother sent text messages to her father Frank every day.
"I don't know about you boys," she said turning to her brothers -- Peter, 40, and Paul, 46 -- who stood beside her at the lectern. "But I didn't know Dad knew how to text."
In the front row, Ercolino's mother Rosalie sat arm in arm with his longtime girlfriend, Ivette Rivera, with whom he lived in West New York, NJ.
"You fulfilled him," Rashford said, looking out at Rivera. "You were his soul mate. You completed him."
The two women -- mother and girlfriend -- held each other and sobbed.
The sister recalled that, the day before he was killed, Ercolino called up his mother, opening the conversation the way he always had. "Hi Ro," he would say.
"He said he just wanted to call because he was thinking about her and wanted to tell her he loved her," Rashford said.
Rashford choked back tears as she recalled her own last conversation with her brother.
"He told me how fortunate we were to have such devoted parents, who gave their life to us growing up," she said. "We do know one thing for sure, we are not broken."
As Rashford walked down from the altar, arm in arm with her two brothers, mourners stood and cheered.