Dr. Norman Goodman admits that his TV idol was Quincy, Jack Klugman’s medical examiner character from the mid-1970s and early ’80s. Then again, he also loves playing the board game Clue, and he keeps a stash of Sherlock Holmes mysteries.
Not that he didn’t once have enough real-life cases to keep him engaged. A retired Phoenixville orthodontist who most recently was chief deputy coroner for Chester County, Goodman has been on America’s Most Wanted twice for the same unsolved cold case: The “Woman in the Suitcase” found on the banks of the Brandywine River in July 1995. The body has still never been identified, though Goodman still gets calls on the mystery.
“Am I saying [it was] fun?” he asks. “Fun is not the word. Exciting? Well, when the phone rings at 2 a.m., the adrenaline gets going and all the questions roll through my mind on the drive down.”
One time, Goodman was on his way to pick up his son, Bruce, in West Chester for lunch when a call came in: A skeleton had been found in Coatesville. So much for lunch.
Until this past June, when he was told the coroner’s office was moving in a different direction, this was Goodman’s daily life. He began serving Chester County as a dental advisor in 1962. Then, after he retired from his Phoenixville practice in 1992, he was appointed deputy coroner and then chief deputy coroner in 1997.
In all, Goodman served 18 years as an appointed official under four elected coroners. He’s certified in death investigation and areas like fingerprinting, blood splatter and arson. When he was first approached to become a coroner, though, Goodman thought, “What?”
“Don’t worry. You’ll learn,” he was told.
All coroners are doctors of some sort. Many are general practitioners. Some are retired, some not. All are part time, but on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a week.
For Goodman, this work became his second career. And somehow he never minded middle-of-the-night calls or dashing out on assignment. “If you need me, I’ll come down,” he used to say.
Even in his second retirement, he continues to serve the community. From the start, he’s been a volunteer in the Duffy’s Cut investigation in Malvern. The case recently made international news again when two more skeletons were unearthed in the railroad rubble beneath the tracks. Fifty-seven Irish immigrants died—or were murdered—at the site in 1832 while working to complete what was then the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad.
“The two skeletons we found were also murdered,” says Frank Watson who, along with his twin brother, Bill (chair of the history department at Immaculata University), is spearheading the investigation. “It gets more and more interesting.”
The team is still seeking funds to continue its work at the site, while also mourning the loss of team member John Ahtes, who died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm this past summer. Goodman is behind efforts to secure a grant that was established during the last Bush administration to fund DNA research to help solve cold cases. “Initially, I was brought in to determine if they were old bodies or recent deaths,” says Goodman of his role in the investigation. “We’re going to find as many as we can and give them a good Christian burial.”
Goodman is a leader in the Jewish community, so some have asked why he’s even interested. “People say, ‘You’re not even Irish. What do you care?’” he says. “I’ve learned more about Irish history and American history than I ever knew. The whole thing is just so interesting.”
Like most of Goodman’s current endeavors, the Duffy’s Cut project costs him money, but he’s involved because he wants to be involved. “It’s all emotional,” he admits. “Anyone who dies—a druggie who was up to no good, a drinker who beat his wife—that person was still a mother or father and had family. So we treat all remains with the highest respect.”
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Norman Goodman attended Temple University as an undergraduate and then for dental school. After some time in the U.S. Army (he’s a retired lieutenant from the post-Korean War era), he focused on orthodontics training, work he completed at New York University. While practicing for years in Phoenixville, he remained on staff at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Goodman’s interest in forensics was inspired by world-renowned anthropologist Wilton M. Krogman and the late Frank Bender, a forensic and fine artist known for making facial reconstructions of the dead. Goodman has been published in the fields of orthodontics and forensics. Recently, he’s written on autopsy and Jewish law and tradition for The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology.
Along the way, Goodman has become a member of the Pennsylvania Association Dental Identification Team, FEMA’s Region 3 Disaster Mortuary Operation Response Team (DMORT) and its Department of Homeland Security. His expertise in forensic dentistry has landed him on the crash scenes of US Air Flight 427, American Airlines Flight 857 and at Ground Zero after the bombing of the World Trade Center. Goodman spent two tours of duty down south after Hurricane Katrina, and he recently returned from a two-week tour of duty in Haiti. “At the World Trade Center, no matter what piece of bone, we took the utmost care and respect,” he says.
Goodman remains bothered by the lack of progress in Haiti, where he says just 2 percent of houses have been rebuilt and only 2 percent of roads have been cleared after six months. “Two percent,” he says. “Where the hell is all the money going? I’ve just always felt good because I was helping the people. You have to feel good.”
To help in New York City after 9/11, Goodman awoke at 5 a.m. to take a bus from King of Prussia; he’d return home at 9 p.m. For Katrina, he stayed in an abandoned school. Showers came from a hose, and tents had mosquito netting. “You don’t do this for the money,” he says, stating the obvious.
Back in the United States, when the Republican National Convention came to Philadelphia, DMORT established a contingency in case of a bomb scare or other emergency. It also secured space for a temporary hospital and morgue. “I’m still very occupied,” says Goodman. “Service is my thing.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Goodman heads a family of Boy Scouts. All three of his sons earned the Eagle distinction, and his own list of distinguished awards in the organization is long and beyond impressive. The Goodman Pavilion at the Horseshoe Scout Reserve in Rising Sun, Md., is named in his honor.
These days, Goodman is even more involved in Scouting. And he’s still lecturing in forensics at Arcadia University and Manor College, plus doing some career counseling in forensics both at Archbishop Carroll High School in Radnor and the Delaware Valley Charter School.
Goodman works out two or three times a week at his 55-and-up community gym, riding a stationary bike for an hour and doing 75 sit-ups (three sets of 25) to maintain his strength and vigor.
“I have a set of clothes ready. I have an entire bag with the basics,” Goodman says. “So I’m always ready to go when [FEMA] says.”
On his own, he’s traveled seven times to Israel to help his own people, volunteering on army bases there—once at a medical supply base, another time at a communications base. As always, it’s wherever he’s been most needed. “I could be home drinking beer,” confesses Goodman. “But there’s nothing like excitement.”
And there are so many cases. So many. But the dead were always human beings, first and last. And DMORT, he says, involves the nicest, most caring people.
“It’s important that there’s no ego,” Goodman says. “No one ever says, ‘I did this,’ or ‘I did that.’ I’m no hero. I’m just a man of service.”