NYPD officer says fame over act of kindness "surreal"

Arizona tourist Jennifer Foster snapped this picture of NYPD Officer Larry DePrimo offering a barefoot homeless man a pair of boots in Times Square, Nov. 14, which became a viral hit.
Jennifer Foster/NYPD/Facebook

(CBS News) Sometimes something happens that restores one's faith in humanity -- and it's not an overstatement to say that's the case in which a New York police officer helped a homeless man.

NYPD officer: Grandfather inspired act of kindness

The picture was evocative of Norman Rockwell, the story a reminder of Dickens or O. Henry. And the best part about this story was that it was never intended to be told.

Officer Larry DePrimo was walking a beat in Times Square on a frigid mid-November night.

DePrimo recalled, "I had two pairs of winter socks on and my combat boots, and my feet were still cold. And I was standing on West 44th and Broadway. And I had heard somebody laughing."

They were laughing at a homeless man, barefoot on the freezing pavement.

DePrimo said, "And you could just see the blisters. You know, he was just walking on the palms of his feet there. And -- it was -- it upset me. And, so, I went up to him and I said, I was like, 'Buddy,' I was like, 'where's your -- where's your socks, where's your shoes?' He was like, 'It's OK, officer, I never had a pair of shoes.' "

So DePrimo ran two blocks to a shoe store. The store's surveillance camera captured the scene.

DePrimo didn't ask for the least expensive pair. He said, "Because, I mean, first thing, like I said, it was cold. So, the cheap shoes wouldn't have done anything. And -- it's -- you know, it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. You know, he's gonna have those boots for a long time. So, I said, 'Give me -- the best you got.' "

Jose Cano, the store manager on duty, said the employees' initial reaction was "total shock." They guessed on the homeless man's size. He said, "We couldn't believe what he was trying to do. We so many people, so many cops and nobody ever takes the time to do that."

Cano added his employee discount, but the boots, along with socks came to most of the $120 a rookie New York City police officer earns in a day. It was Jennifer Foster, a tourist from Arizona, who watched DePrimo kneel down from a few feet away and took the picture that's now-famous photo.

Foster said, "I heard him quite clearly say, 'I have size 12 all-weather boots for you, let's take care of you. And the gentleman sat down against the wall and I'm telling you, his face lit up and he smiled."

DePrimo didn't see Foster take the photo or know it would go viral -- even global.

DePrimo said, "I was eating dinner with my family about two nights ago. And my friend sent me a picture. And he's like, 'It's online. Everybody knows what you've done.Thousands of people have heard about it.' I was like, 'I haven't even heard about this. So, how is this possible?' "

How is it possible? In a world marked by stories of greed, corruption and cruelty, a young man vested with authority, kneels before an old man who has almost nothing to put shoes on his bare feet. It tells us so much about what is possible.

DePrimo said, "If I had to choose a few words, 'surreal' would definitely be one of it. And 'humbling.' It's an absolutely humbling experience that I'm able to go through this right now."

DePrimo told CBS News' John Miller his grandfather was his inspiration for his act of kindness. Miller said on "CBS This Morning," "(He said), 'My grandfather, he told me if you're going do something, do it 100 percent or don't do it at all.' I think, that's why he walked into the shoe store and said, 'Give me the best boots you got.' "

DePrimo has been on the force for three years said he hopes to one day be on the ESU, the Emergency Service Unit, a SWAT and rescue team of the NYPD. Miller said, "For somebody who likes to help people, that's probably the ultimate place to be."

Watch John Miller's full report in the video above.