Cabbie honored for returning violin

April 23, 2008 6:44:15 PM PDT
In the pre-dawn darkness, cabbie Mohamed Khalil drove away, unaware that his fares had not yet taken the third piece of their luggage from his minivan. He was also unaware that the case left on the seat contained a violin worth about $4 million, an irreplaceable 1723 Antonio Stradivari "Ex-Keisewetter" that was on loan to Grammy-nominated violinist Philippe Quint.

Once he found out, he knew there was only one thing he could do.

"It's nothing belonging to me," Khalil said Wednesday. "I just had to return it."

Khalil dismissed his action as "nothing exceptional," but Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker enthusiastically disagreed.

At a City Hall ceremony Wednesday, Booker called Khalil an "extraordinary, heroic person" and presented the father of three with a medallion signifying the city's highest honor.

"This is a time when a person in our city saw something awry and did not take personal advantage," Booker said, noting he had only presented about five of the medallions since taking office nearly two years ago.

"The loss of this just wouldn't be devastating to one man. This is a work of art," he said.

The violin saga started about 12:30 a.m. Monday, when Khalil picked up Quint and his girlfriend at Newark Liberty International Airport. Quint was returning from a performance in Dallas, and Khalil drove them to Quint's home in lower Manhattan.

Quint was frantic when Khalil drove away. "I just collapsed right there. I was just beside myself," he said from Kentucky, where he is performing Thursday with the Louisville Orchestra.

"I was thinking to myself: How is this possible? The instrument is an extension of your body. You can never, ever forget it," said Quint, noting he was always puzzled when it happened to other musicians, such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma. "I just proved myself wrong."

After calling 911 and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport, he was soon in the offices of the Newark Taxi Commission viewing photographs of taxis.

Adding to his distress: the violin was on loan from philanthropists Clement and Karen Addison, of Buffalo, N.Y.

Khalil, 57, who has been driving cabs for 24 years, parked his cab for the night, not knowing that people were trying desperately to find it.

In the morning, an employee used the minivan to take fares to Kearny and Queens, N.Y., before Khalil got word that Newark Cab Association was asking drivers to check for the missing violin.

Khalil, who emigrated from Egypt in 1980, became a U.S. citizen, launched a cab company, married and raised three sons who are now all students at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, arranged to meet Quint again at the airport.

There, he said, the violinist "sat on the floor and cried." Quint gave Khalil $100; Khalil gave him a ride home in his personal vehicle.

"Glad does not describe it," said Quint, 34, who is also an immigrant, having left his homeland of Russia in 1991 to become a U.S. citizen. "I am thrilled beyond belief."